In concert: Retro Futura 2014, featuring Tom Bailey, Howard Jones, Midge Ure, China Crisis and Katrina (Various locations; August 21-23, 2014)

“Sometimes there’s a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess it’s just the music that brings on nostalgia
For an age yet to come.” – Pete Shelley (1978)

Tom Bailey2, Pennysaver, August 23

(Words and pictures by Len Lumbers)

August 21, 2014 – New York City, NY: Best Buy Theatre

August 22, 2014 – Glenside, PA: Keswick Theatre

August 23, 2014 – Long Island, NY: Pennysaver Amphitheatre

It was dead of winter when I learned Tom Bailey was defrosting his long-neglected Thompson Twins catalog for an American summer package tour, which, even accounting for a Brian Wilson-Beach Boys detente and a new Bowie record in the preceding 18 months, might rank as the biggest shock I’ve experienced in music.

Curb whatever you’re thinking about package tours. To wit: logistical headaches indeed exist, but in this case, the execution in front of the velvet rope – which is all most of us see anyway – has been nearly seamless, the product immensely enjoyable. Everything I’m sharing’s refracted through the prism of bands playing shorter sets than they’d present as single- or double-bill acts.

From the five acts on this 2014 Retro Futura bill – Bailey as de facto Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Midge Ure as de facto Ultravox, China Crisis, and Katrina Leskanich sans The Waves, there’re precisely six people touring from the original lineups. So the Retro Futura business model won’t remind anyone of Aamer Haleem doggedly chugging through buildings and streets to spook retired pop stars into appearing on VH-1 Bands Reunited. Then again, VH-1 was peddling a T.V. gimmick. One could easily argue Retro Futura’s performing a valuable service.

RF tour graphic

Pitchfork and its hipster ilk haven’t spilled ink on any of the Retro Futura acts, so the 1980’s new wave canon, as represented by these five, is one of unexplored joys for millennials approaching the music from a diet of Cut Copy, Wild Beasts, La Roux, Lights or Future Islands. And for those of us who were around during MTV’s UK-friendly salad days, the John Hughes movie in our heads has sprung back to life. And for those who thought Thompson Twins walked on water, scratch that big itch: Tom Bailey is alive and well and wearing his Kate Bush headset microphone. He’s singing Twins songs for the first time in 27 years, which gives him something to talk with Vashti Bunyan about should they ever take afternoon tea.

I’m nostalgic. I’m old enough to properly enjoy a good reverie and sharp enough to know reasons why. I recall the colour of the sky the first time I dug into a Thompson Twins album. It was a cornflower blue, just like the Into The Gap artwork. And I remember the sky when I got Jones’ Human’s Lib as a birthday gift: grey and pensive, which mightn’t’ve fit the thrilling suite on side one but fit side two’s “Don’t Always Look At The Rain” to a T. Bailey and HoJo are the top draws on this three-week jaunt, but Jones manfully ceded the anchor leg to his compadre, which, if all goes to plan, ought to impart a genuine air of celebration to each tour stop. For a time – 1984 (which really is the root year of this whole endeavour) – their acts represented the best of the second surge of new wave music: popular records which appealed to discerning collegiates and young urban professionals; artistically superior songs that 10-year-olds could buy from bestseller racks in mall stores. HoJo sang about self-actualization and positive reinforcement; Thompson Twins were a multi-racial boy-girl-boy trio who built pancultural music elements into their songs. Both acts featured singers comfortable in the high tenor range, which made for tremendously vivid choruses, and each could really write a hook. If one’s looking for a quick nostalgia fix from that root year 1984, these’re the guys you want.

So. Wild horses and all that.

I caught the first three shows (heart of Manhattan, sub-Philly and waaay out on Long Island) before coming home to type, and here’s what registered.

The troupe survived an eleventh-hour mass migraine, restocking the house band with a scattershot collection of pros after the first team – a self-contained synth-plus-guitar band – fell through. (And you think the life of a promoter is all caviar dreams?) The new unit – Jimi K. Bones (guitar), Doug Wright (bass), Kevin Tooley (drums) and Ado Coker (keys) – had all of two rehearsals to warm to the Ure, CC and Katrina setlists, each requiring different feels and an understanding of personality tics. (And you think the life of a pro musician is all caviar dreams?)

Katrina Leskanich, Pennysaver, August 23

Personality tics abound at this show. Katrina, distinct due to her gender, nationality and dearth of burbling synths, is also the sassiest performer, and it’s a canny play. The audience knows – and waits on – “Walking On Sunshine,” but the undercard’s a tough draw even for a seasoned performer, and she must pave the road with good material beforehand.

Kat’s Waves had written and released the absolutely wonderful “Going Down To Liverpool” nearly two years before The Bangles lobbed it into the mainstream with that Leonard Nimoy video; here, Katrina and co. reclaim the song with a terrific reading, all “Ticket To Ride”-like drums and delicious guitar crunch. Debbi Peterson’s vocal on the Bangles single is winsome, but Leskanich outpoints her on pure power and tone. There’s a concession made to populism beginning with the Pennsylvania Kewsick Theatre show, where she incorporates the Bangles version’s falsetto tails in the verse, while Ado Coker adds the vaporous backing vocals to the chorus, but I’m fine with the decision. It might even be the best song I hear in the first three hours every night. Might be. There’s a lot of other good stuff to come.

Otherwise, Leskanich shares a few vintage Waves songs (in the shows I’ve seen, the propulsive “Do You Want Crying?” only aired at Manhattan’s Best Buy Theatre) and rotating highlights from her new album, which she’s selling at the merch stand, and which she’ll autograph if you approach to tell her how great her voice sounds after years away from the touring grind. I’ve added that last clause myself because it’s true. And yes, “Walking On Sunshine” doesn’t disappoint. It’s the closest we get to a souped-up Motown stomp all night, a powerful dose of Americana in a night rife with Britishness. She’s quickly developed a good rapport with house guitarist Bones, too.

China Crisis, Keswick, August 22

China Crisis is not quite a 180-degree turn from Katrina, but we’ve clearly crossed an ocean. They wove F-bombs into two singles off what I consider the prettiest synthpop LP of the ‘80s, Working With Fire And Steel. That’s cheek. Singer Gary Daly works the room under that adage about dancing like nobody’s watching, which so far has included wearing a kaftan at most of the shows, occasionally flashing a bit of ankle. He wore a suit at the Pennysaver show and suddenly he could’ve been Ferry, Sylvian, Bowie. Spend a few minutes with him after a show or during his merch table appearances and you’ll learn the cheekiness extends well beyond his early song lyrics.

CC don’t play anything off Fire And Steel here. It’s not by accident (yeah, I asked), and even wishful thinking won’t give Eddie Lundon his turn at the mic for their biggest UK hit, but the set doesn’t want for quality: an expansive “Arizona Sky,” a coolly insinuating “African And White,” and a hatful of highlights from 1985’s Flaunt The Imperfection. The four-song set-within-a-set clearly strikes a chord with the Crisis faithful at these shows, particularly at the Pennysaver, where there was a lot of front-row pogoing.

China Crisis, Pennysaver, August 23

Lundon is CC’s field general, and in these early shows his stage directions are the clearest indicator of the last-minute challenges brought upon the tour. It’s subtle: a gentle nod, a move into everyone’s line-of-sight behind Daly, a few off-mic whispers to guitarist Bones. (For these shows, Tracy Schnurr has been on drums for CC.) This band plays CC’s delicately flowing music with a curious mix of learning-curve focus and typical live-show rawness. When it works it’s exceedingly fine (“African And White” comes off great), when it’s a work-in-progress you simply have to concede the pressures of backstage machinations (“King In A Catholic Style” got better each night; it needed to, and hopefully it stays there). On this bill, CC’s the least-known entity to American ears, even to this relatively knowledgeable set of American ears, but they ought to win a few converts.

Midge Ure, Keswick, August 22

Midge Ure will definitely win a few converts.

Manhattan’s wise to him, but the Keswick and Pennysaver crowds reacted like they’d just discovered a great new ice cream flavour/religion/beer. Commitments were signed in blood during post-chorus respites. Smartphones lit up as people Soundhounded and Googled. Peals of delight rattled from the pews at every widescreen refrain. Ure’s six-song set somehow feels like a complete career overview, despite leaving another dozen terrific songs on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the modern resume, everything wrapped up in a single page, brimming with scannable keywords.

Such as: hymn, God, fade, Vienna, tears.

Midge Ure, Pennysaver2, August 23

Drawing from three of his most significant ‘80s playbooks – the nearly always great Ultravox, his solo work, his stewardship of Steve Strange’s Visage – Ure’s set is the most intense, the hardest rocking, the fastest moving. It’s high drama from the moment Gary Daly tags him in: a swath of muso feedback, a suspenseful overture, a count-in, a lurch into “Hymn (The Power And The Glory)”’s muscled synth-rock. The audience is always delighted at the adrenaline rush, happening not two minutes after China Crisis’ amiable departure, and although Ure doesn’t maintain the intensity level all set – can’t, really, he is not The Ramones, maaan – he’s set a template that works time and again. House bassist Doug Wright’s clearly in heaven with this music.

Midge Ure, Pennysaver, August 23

“Fade To Grey” is a known commodity, but it catches crowds off-guard because not everyone reads label credits. Despite dialling down the synth, it’s a fine reading of a seminal tune. “If I Was” retains its arch grandeur, but for sheer pomp there’s no matching the epic “Vienna.” It’s the easiest photo opportunity any of you would-be photogs’ll get all night, the moments wherein Ure steels himself for that soaring, wall-rattling crescendo. “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is here, too. It’s torridly romantic in the way “Both Ends Burning” was torridly romantic. Love under fire. Enjoy that one, as his high tenor, hardly touched by decades of work, ruffles the hair cells in your Corti. Midge, you wrote some monster choruses, man.

Howard Jones, Pennysaver, August 23

Predictably, Howard Jones presents the fewest surprises in these shows, and I’m not saying this to be oxymoronic. Everyone knows HoJo’s been optimized for peak efficiency since forever, so the variables come down to set design and song choice. Like everyone else on this tour, HoJo remains in fine fettle, so the choruses retain their uplifting vim in identical or close-neighbouring keys to the records of yore.

Howard Jones, Pennysaver2, August 23

Because his 45s were groomed for maximum hummability, concert HoJo sounds awfully beefy in person. For various reasons, there’s not a lot of crowd singing in the earlier band sets, but the audience is right there with Howard soon as he hits the bridge. It’s not surprising on early staples, but to hear the crowd double his decibels on a later single like “Everlasting Love” is a sharp reminder of how little modern chart pop is singable. That “…friend and a lover divine/wait for it, wait for it, give it some time” refrain might look stiff on paper, but it’s excitably elastic in surround sound. And it’s not even his best tune. That honour probably rests somewhere within the closing quarter-hour salvo that is “Things Can Only Get Better,” “What Is Love?” and “New Song.” Good things come in threes, though, so I hope he’s not making a habit of dropping “What Is Love?,” a fate which befell the Keswick show.

Like any good technocrat, he’s put his back into modernizing the sound on these songs. For the most part, the transition’s been smooth, although the techno “Things” reprise is too much of a meh thing. It only leaves enough room for one ballad, and no one’s surprised that “No One Is To Blame” gets the nod over “Hide And Seek.” Presented in its hit arrangement but mercifully shorn of Phil Collins, the tune’s aching grace breathes anew.

Howard Jones, Keswick, August 22

Turns out Howard’s quite the prattler onstage, too. We get a fair bit of pre-song testifyin’. We also get – and this is important, so please take note – the auteur in a blindingly bright orange suit and matching keytar. Electronic kit’s played by Jonathan Atkinson; Robbie Bronnimann’s synth second-in-command. Robbie won’t wear orange, despite HoJo’s pre-tour sartorial entreaties to the online community. Maybe Robbie don’t surf?

Tom Bailey, Keswick, August 22

And then there was one. Bailey. You never forget your first time, unless it happens twice, and 29 years apart at that. I’d only seen Thompson Twins once before, back when I was so young and full of brio, ridiculous things like playing a Twins tape for 858 consecutive days seemed both feasible and logical (Tom, if you’re reading, the last 394 days of that stretch were dedicated to Close To The Bone; make of that what you will [insert smiley face emoticon]). The passage of time tends to wipe slates and dreams clean, so while much of 2014’s been devoted to living in the present, I’d kept an eager eye on August 21st since the date was announced. I know I’m not alone in this. You never forget your second first time.

I think Bailey understands this. The Thompson legacy’s been imperilled for the better part of two decades, left untended by its contributing members and whatever remained of management and A&R, subject to varying degrees of dismissiveness and sporadic derision from the tastemakers. All this, despite the fact prime Twins was chock-a-block with wonderfully simpatico production from sundry skilled hands, stoked by some of the best arrangement layering I’ve heard since the days of ABBA, fired by instantly memorable chorus and refrain peaks, signposted with incisive and insightful lyrics, all of it ably and colourfully sung by the Neapolitan Mod Squad (or whatever the hell Rolling Stone called them) in endless balance variants. Or, if you want an assessment in 10 words: superior craftsmanship from the last period of great popular music.

That’s the backstory for boatloads of people attending these shows, and from the moment David Stopps introduces Tom to the strains of an alluringly re-recorded “We Are Detective,” drama’s as high as…as a Midge Ure chorus, for crissakes.

Lights low, nothing trained downstage, dry ice like pea soup, the floor shaking to the churning “In The Name Of Love” intro, a tousle-haired figure purposefully moving through the murk. Next, a spotlight beamed into the audience, that nervy opening verse (“hey you…I’ve seen your face before…”) punching through the mix, swamped in echo, sung as stonily as it was on record 33 cold winters ago and sounding very nearly the same. The chorus arrives. The downstage light nails its mark. And then he’s among us again. Tom Bailey’s among us again, and it’s 1983 or 1984 or 1985 or 1987 again, whenever you were old enough for your parents to let you out for concerts, or whenever you finally cottoned onto Twins songs. The journey’s complete, mission accomplished, cherries ‘n’ champagne corks a-popping .

And man, you should see how the room sways for this guy and his imperilled legacy. The singalongs. The choruses are part of the crowd’s collective DNA. They’ve got the answer vocals to “You Take Me Up” down pat. They’re singing keyboard refrains in the breaks. I saw Keswick with several people I know from the online community, including one family who’d driven up from Florida. They linked arms during “Hold Me Now.” Wouldn’t you?

Tom Bailey1, Keswick, August 22

Tom and band present nine songs in 55 minutes. To my delight, and I hope to yours as well, he often teases the arrangements out to supersized lengths, just as he did in the Twins’ touring years. Call them 10-inch versions; they’re not quite as long as the old extended club mixes, but each spotlights important elements of the songs that usually get buried beneath vocals on the singles. Thoughtful arrangements, cleverly presented. Tom himself plays everything he packed for the bus: Novation synth, Fender electric, harmonica, mounted toms, tambourine. He’s like a kid in a candy store, restless, curious, a bundle of energy.

Tom Bailey, Pennysaver, August 23

As support, he’s brought in three players of pedigree: synthesist Amanda Kramer’s been in both Information Society and Golden Palominos; synthesist Angie Pollock’s been in Ian Broudie’s Lightning Seeds, and I saw her touring with Goldfrapp in 2008; electronic kit drummer Emily Dolan Davies was all over Bryan Ferry’s last record, which is as close as a sessioneer gets to a drop-the-mic argument. There’s a lot of work for Pollock and Kramer, handling basics and several leads, leaving just enough room for Bailey to drop in a few solos and intros. Dolan Davies cuts an arresting image, playing with a metronomic fluidity that had me thinking back to Boris Williams’ pre-Cure days as a touring Thompson. All three sing, which is crucial to the Thompson blueprint: Joe Leeway’s and Alannah Currie’s vocals are laced through most important Twins tracks and these renditions would be bereft without high harmonies or answer vocals. I imagine Tom made an executive decision to stay away from songs with significant solos (“We Are Detective,” “Watching”), but this unit, impishly referred to onstage as the “sisters of mercy” is well suited to the task. Pollock reprises the old “Sister Of Mercy” answer vocal with haunting accuracy.

Tom Bailey1, Pennysaver, August 23

Two songs stand out: “If You Were Here” has been doubled in both verse and duration, and both amendments are inspired winners. The 1983 original, an album track lofted into iconography by association with a triumphal scene in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, was a gorgeous record of vapour trail synth lines, an unremitting new wave beat and a whispered lead vocal of heroic longing. This new “If You Were Here” toys with perfection but skirts the pitfall by stripping it of its insularity, building to a (what the hell, why not?) Ure-like intensity by packing a ghostly coo from the Pollock-Kramer-Dolan Davies team into the middle and a staggeringly bold peak into its new verses, replete with yeah-yeah-yeahs and Bailey at full throttle. It might be the second-best song of his career, now.

But “Hold Me Now” is forever The One. Played out at nearly eight minutes, it’s given all the time it needs to establish, lead and, eventually, hand reins to the audience. From the opening piano figure to the naked opening verse, from the first chorus to the rippling instrumental break, from the final verse resolution to the sunburst finale, the basic version you’ll hear on this tour is as spectacular as you’d dare hope. But in some cases, magic blooms. I’m reminded of something Ferry said once about live performances: “Say there are 12 high points in a piece; it’s usually impossible to bring them all out in a studio, you get maybe half of them. In a live performance, though, it’s often possible to bring them all up.” At the Keswick on Friday night, Bailey bullseyed. Ceding control to a raucous throng of leatherlungs, Tom Bailey finally cut the music and brought his sisters of mercy downstage to lead an a cappella round of “Hold Me Now.” The music had ended, but so had the long silence. Tom Bailey, bracketed by his band, bowed deeply and left the stage.

Tom Bailey, Keswick, August 22

Watch the Keswick Theatre “Hold Me Now” finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZsjfHlN72g

RETRO FUTURA US setlist

In concert: Peter Hook & The Light (Toronto; September 19, 2013)

Peter Hook-02641

The ragged faux-hawk, the week-old stubble, the biker bar-ready tee, the axe slung low: it’s a great front, but the hundred-yard stare gives Peter Hook away.

Melancholy’s enhanced by the chronological presentation of the early New Order songbook Hooky’s playing this tour, songs co-written by a dead man, songs crafted in the wake of suicide, songs credited to a band he’s no longer welcome to work alongside. Halfway into the set, at the point the songs recall his old band’s discovery of amphetamines and sequencers, daylight will poke through the blinds. The show will end in euphoria for most, but I wonder whether Hooky deflates as soon as he hits the tour bus. It’s a crummy fate, and if you’re reading, Hooky, we love ya, ya proud, tragic bastard.

The depressing state of New Order’s interpersonal affairs has occasioned a rousing compromise, wherein the corporate office tours a terrific hits set (call it Substance [Expanded Edition]), while Hooky’s satellite branch presents original albums and b-sides (Rhino Handmade, maybe?).

Peter Hook-02651

For acolytes the result sits somewhere between a child of divorce’s dual-Christmas windfall and the factionalism of The Beach Boys, who wrote the book on dysfunction and disharmony. Today, in New Order’s post-creative twilight, Hooky falls somewhere between Al Jardine and Brian Wilson, while Barney Sumner wears both the Mike Love and Carl Wilson hats. (I get a distinct Bruce Johnston vibe from The Other Two.)

(Context: after band glue Carl Wilson died, Jardine was forced out of the BBs and driven to playing regional club dates. Brian Wilson, adrift from the main band, assembled a brilliant backup unit dedicated to spot-on presentations of increasingly arcane back catalogue song picks.)

Barney’s Newest Order certainly fits the “legacy band” bill, a slick and festival-ready behemoth delivering on the promise of a peerless songbook, all adrenaline rush and audience sing-a-longs. The show I caught last fall is in my personal top ten.

But there was another Order before Quincy Jones and Technique and World Cup theme songs, one which brazenly re-wired the relationship between rough rock and extended-form disco, regularly unveiling work-in-progress genius in small clubs with iffy PAs and murky lighting. This was the New Order only fans of a certain age got to see, and this is the New Order Hooky’s re-staging, and this is the faction which wins my heart even as the glossier corporate unit wins my head.

In Toronto last week at the tiny Hoxton (September 19th), Hooky and co. took the stage to early Order A’s ‘n’ B’s: the Ian Curtis co-writes from the debut 45 and a sprightly “Procession,” before diving into the complete Movement LP.

Peter Hook-02646

For I imagine nearly all this crowd, it’s hair-raising stuff. They’ve only heard these songs in their bed- and living rooms for the better part of three decades, the music’s brawn reined in by Martin Hannett’s crystalline production. But in the here-and-now, the re-contextualization invigorates, familiar and new all at once. “Ceremony” (anybody else flash back to that dancing sport jacket guy from the 1981 Celebration show video?), “Procession” (god, it’s good wonderful to hear it in person), “Dreams Never End” (those guitar breaks!), “The Him” (tension…and release), “Doubts Even Here” (boy, Order could weave spells with repetition). Barring a few extended outros, the band stay true to the arrangements, and I dare say it’s the best Movement many of us will get to hear. As a live singer, Hooky’s a furlong ahead of Sumner circa ’81. Movement fits his dolorous rumble like a glove.

Unfortunately, he can’t reliably channel the brighter register he used on his ‘90s side-project records (consider ‘97’s near-top ten “What Do You Want From Me?”), which leads to some trouble on the Power, Corruption and Lies tracks. Sumner’s airy, pinched croon is hard for Hooky to reach, and he often settles for breaking off notes in a sore bark. (As much as I want to hear The Light tackle the Low-Life and Brotherhood period next tour, I think the vocs will pose a problem.)

Peter Hook-02647

A conundrum, it breaks the spell, but the band covers the bet by playing the back nine as expertly as the front. Keyboardist Andy Poole and drummer Paul Kehoe have been on-side since The Light started covering the Joy Division albums in 2010; guitarist David Potts came on board this summer. All three worked with Hook as Monaco 15 years ago; Potts met Hook on 1990’s Revenge side-project. So, no hired guns, this crew. And bassist Jack Bates goes back even further: he’s Peter’s son. (Does that last bit jar? Peter Hook needs a bassist? Yes: NO used two bass lines all over their early records, and given The Light’s brief of arrangement accuracy, son takes the foundation lines while papa handles leads. It works.)

But the performances of PC &L tracks and contemporaneous singles sail along, not quite as revelatory as the earlier tunes – partly because NO had learned studio technique by 1982 – but still muscular, danceable and gripping: “Age Of Consent”’s manic guitar and bass riffs, “The Village”’s burbling rythmns, “5.8.6.”’s stiff-backed proto-techno, “Leave Me Alone”’s dense, interlocked solos.

Hooky’s encore, a parade of alternative hall of famers (“EGG,” “Temptation,” “Blue Monday”), was two parts incandescence and one part canned ham – the first two, among the most physically insistent rhythmic rock songs I know, scored loudly, but “Monday” was a bit spectator sport, as three of the guys took runs at a malfunctioning syn-drum kit while the static backing track played on. A cock-up squarely in keeping with vintage New Order performances.

Peter Hook-02665

“Monday” petered out and Hooky stood alone, shirtless, blinking out into the roaring little crowd. You know it’s personal, this band warfare. It’s hard not to hear snatches of lyric as commentary (“an escape that fails and makes the wounds that time won’t heal”). How long can he burn? Raging against the death of contemporary relevancy, he’s produced several remarkable documents this decade. It’s anyone’s guess where he’s going once the last note of Republic sounds a few years hence. Some place peaceful, I hope.

Peter Hook 2013

In concert: Johnny Marr (Toronto; April 27, 2013)

Johnny Marr wants to be the messenger

(click images to enlarge)

Johnny Marr may never grow old. Chronologically he’s always been four-and-a-half years younger than Steven Morrissey, but where once they ran together in the smartest new gang in town, the singer’s descended into crotchety windmill-tilting, and the guitarist now seems a generation younger: fitter and sprightlier, socialized into the modern pop world of project one-offs, Facebooked tour tales and peer palling about.

“Hand In Glove” turns 30 on May 13th. Marr’s 50 this Halloween. Both ages seem surprising, in part because The Smiths’ tidy recording career never gathered moss, and in part because Marr’s serial short-term project-hopping’s blurred together for all but his most ardent followers. In pop fandom, most Smiths generalists would have as much trouble listing all Marr’s sideman turns as the average Joe might in naming the 50 states. I’m not saying North Dakota doesn’t matter, but put it this way: I have one Cribs disc and it’s not Ignore The Ignorant.

Johnny Marr won't stop if you think you've heard this one before

 

Anyway, 2013 finds Marr touring a solid and spunky “debut” solo record (a disingenuous tag, considering 2003’s Boomslang), and The Messenger’s vivacity was in full bloom at the Toronto show I caught last weekend (Phoenix Concert Theatre, April 27th). Marr bounded out to the LP’s stomping opener, “The Right Thing Right,” and steered the ship through one of the dandiest opening concert salvos I’ve heard in a good while.

As an extended artist-fan hug, the spell was greater than its sum of parts: a few Smiths tunes, a few of the better new songs, a middling Electronic single. This was about the erstwhile boy wonder magician commanding the spotlight as both singer and guitar hero, wiggling hips and pursing lips while his fingers – those magnificent fingers – pulled ringing chords and twinkling arpeggios out of his trusty Fender Jaguar, dazzling a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that clearly came primed for revelry. One of the liveliest multi-generational crowds I’ve seen in many a Toronto club date, to be honest.

What oceanic pool of restraint and resolve was Marr drawing from to allow Morrissey the pulpit in those Smiths days? Not that he was exactly Teller to Moz’ Jillette, and not that it was a bad decision from a legend-building POV, but he was so quiet. England understood him, but rockist America never did: a hapless 2003 Rolling Stone “greatest guitarist” issue left Marr off the list. The Messenger barely dented the Top 100 over here. The Marr we saw Saturday night seemed very comfortable as the billed artist, all the chops, haircut and quips you could ever need. All those years spent playing someone else’s foil – whether to genuine pop icons or indie bands of varietal worth – seem sadly unnecessary. He could’ve been Clapton, not Ronson.

Johnny Marr does the right thing right

 

The price of that deference is he’ll always share the bill with the elephant.

Rapture greeted every Smiths song on the docket. Not surprising. The single-minded, youthful drive that fueled Marr’s Smiths arrangements not only marks them as immediately identifiable, but also of a higher caste. When I saw Marr tour in 2003 he wasn’t doing Smiths, a huge concession given his rock ex-wife had been dipping into the canon for years. A decade later, Marr’s rethink pays off in explosions of joy, that electric twelfth-man vibe which elevates a show to a capital-E Experience.  Marr’s not pissing around with his selections, either. No cultishly adored B-sides here: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” “The Queen Is Dead,” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” all punctuated the main set. Maybe some of us would’ve fainted if “Girl Afraid” appeared in the playlist, but come on: look at those four songs! If live music’s best enjoyed as a communal whomp-whomp, can you go wrong with the breezy verbosity and chiming pre-chorus riffs in “Stop Me,” or the deliriously fatalistic singalong romanticism of “There Is A Light,” or the hilarious imagery and psycho-metallic soloing in “The Queen Is Dead,” or the 60-mile-an-hour thrill ride guitar breaks of “Bigmouth”?

No, you cannot.

“G’night!” he shouted after “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” He turned to go, the club buzzing like the Leafs had just won a playoff game. Oh, you imp.

As a singer of Smiths songs, Marr is no Morrissey. Those note-bending yodels have sharper contours than you think. And some lyrics’re meant only for certain jawlines. But if his tone’s not quite there, he does share a certain mid-range timbre, and with the simpatico backing provided by guitarist James Doviak, drummer Jack Mitchell and bassist Iwan Gronow, the music outpoints anything Morrissey’s employed in his Smiths exhumations. With apologies to Rourke and Joyce, Marr is the sound of The Smiths, and each oldie unfolds exquisitely in its creator’s hands. It makes you ache a little over that severed alliance, the divorce with no winner.

Google “Lorne Michaels Beatles offer,” and hope Jimmy Fallon’s got a chequing account.

Johnny Marr breaking rocks in the hot sun with Kevin Drew

 

The second half of the main set flagged, as Marr strung too many Messenger songs together. And I don’t know why he completely ignored Boomslang; a couple picks would’ve spiked the punch. All told, 10 of 12 Messenger tracks made the cut. Too many, even though the second half included the terrific new waveish title track, the splendidly melodic “New Town Velocity,” and some beautifully expansive, extended soloing on “Say Demesne.”

The encore fully restored the buzz: the star in a crimson “Johnny Fucking Marr” tee ($30 at the merch table!), an enthusiastic “I Fought The Law” with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew guesting, a de-synthesized “Getting Away With It,” and a housequaking “How Soon Is Now?” With Doviak handling the two-note sigh, Marr grabbed the shivering Bo Diddley rhythm and played it like no Morrissey sideman ever has, its swampy ripples and curves in all the right places, with a knee-weakening resonance that satisfied the mind as much as it stirred the heart. Songs that saved your life, indeed.

Johnny Marr setlist, April 27, 2013

In concert: Killing Joke (Toronto; April 24, 2013)

Killing Joke think this is music to dance to

(click images to enlarge)

Ah, damnit, there was a whiff of why us? hanging in the air during Killing Joke’s Toronto show this week (Wednesday, April 24th). British legacy bands only swing through town every three or four years, so the “missing drummer/ill singer/abbreviated setlist” trifecta isn’t the kind of parlay a betting fan might place with much enthusiasm.

I’ve gobs of affection for Joke on so many classic symbiotic levels – for the artistic temperament to close shop after a brush with mainstream temptation, for the original quartet reuniting in 2007 for all the right reasons, for making increasingly wicked records over the past decade – but drummer Paul Ferguson’s decision to skip the Montreal and Toronto shows to tend to an art gallery event rankled. From the band that refers to its shows as tribal gatherings and closed its 2006 LP with a song about fan-band synergy (called “Gratitude,” for crissakes), this wasn’t especially comradely. It’s an 11-date tour, Paul. Come on.

And when Jaz Coleman issued his lone spoken address after just one song – “Well, my voice is completely gone. But we will play on.“ – the Joke swerved towards the farcical. But hey, you attend enough rock shows, you’ll catch some from depleted crews. Toronto’s wasn’t a limp performance: Killing Joke is a rock ’n’ roll rottweiler. But as an ipso facto statement, the Lee’s Palace crowd got short-changed.

Killing Joke chop-chop the setlist

 

Now, who among us hasn’t wondered, What if Jaz Coleman ever got a sore throat? Here’s what that’s like. Pangs of dejection from the singer at several turns: after a note he couldn’t hammer home; by clutching motions made at his throat; in exercising his field general’s authority to begin cherry-picking from the setlist 35 minutes in. After eight songs Jaz paused. Walked over to a song list taped to the bass amp stack. I typed uh-oh into my notes: the great cull was underway. The first song after the pause was the closest thing to a pop tune in the roll call – “Eighties” – Jaz only managing foggy shouts in place of his usual melodic barking. But then “Whiteout” followed, his vocal hard and clear over the stampeding industrial blur. Next up, “Asteroid,” which made me laugh, because it’s the roughest ride imaginable for a suffering singer. You’d forgive him if he’d taken the soft option, called for  “A Southern Sky” or one of Joke’s quasi-instrumentals, but he chose paint-peeling intensity, throwing a defiant middle finger at the common cold. I do not recall him taking a sip of anything during the entire ordeal. Push, push, struggle.

I saw the setlist later. They’d planned 19 songs. We’d get 14.

Economy of movement: I once saw George Foreman score a KO off a flick of the wrist. Geordie Walker could probably play with his in a cast. His chording hits with Foreman-like force, yet he hardly moves. Lack of trad rock posing is his allure. It’s absorbing theatre, this measured, minimalist input producing such jaggedly plangent results.

Killing Joke kamikaze 'til they get there

 

The production detail in recorded Killing Joke often gets lost in the murky acoustics of small clubs. I’ve heard clearer mixes at Lee’s Palace from bands with three guitarists, so maybe the house sound just couldn’t figure out Walker’s cement mixer grinding. Similarly, Youth’s low and heavy basslines provided momentum without much definition. Still, the attack’s as compelling as a steamroller. On the groove tracks – “Wardance,” “Bloodsport,” “The Wait” – standing still is not an option. Cue the slam dancers. And “Madness” is transportive, perhaps the perfect Killing Joke song. Gripped by dissonant guitar howls, a loping bass run, tribal drumming and shouted pass-the-hat vocals, its deployment of powerful rock elements into such a punishing – but spacious – quilt of sound is amazing, almost Who-like in how it highlights individual brilliance without actual soloing. The madness could’ve gone on twice as long and we’d’ve been the better for it, what with our blistered cochleas and jellied knees. Rottweilers.

After the one-song encore, a pulsating “Pssyche” introduced (and co-sung) by Youth, Jaz extended a sincere Namaste to the crowd and left the final bows to his mates. The 62-minute, pock-marked gig won’t be a bootleg favourite, but it was a pretty ballsy effort from a determined crew. I sure hope the art gallery thing went well, too.

Props to Pitchshifter drummer and Joke associate Jason Bowld for sitting in for Ferguson. He doesn’t have the dance-beat pep implicit in Ferguson’s playing, but he’s clearly familiar with the band’s canon, and was plenty heavy. As ever, Reza Udhin handled the dirty synths, and also assumed Ferguson’s “Madness” vocal part.

The dropped songs were “Sun Goes Down,” Money Is Not Our God” and “Corporate Elect” in the main set; “Change” and “The Death & Resurrection Show” were intended for the encore.

I also reviewed a Killing Joke concert in 2010.

Killing Joke setlist, April 24, 2013

The Top 25 Albums of 2012

Top 25 Albums of 2012

~~~

Among the zillion albums released in 2012, here are the top 25. As I heard ‘em, anyway. (And what’re they putting in the water down in Brooklyn?)

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 25-21

 

25. TANLINES – Mixed Emotions

For me, one terrific song – even more precisely, a spectacular 79-second passage within – overshadows everything else, but if I sidestep my oneitis for a sec, here’s why Mixed Emotions made the cut: a neat aesthetic recalling a preeminent force (Vampire Weekend) without tipping into simple-minded imitation (nor in this case, VW’s arch wordplay). The songs are a little samey, but the presentation is excellent. Vigorous percussion tracks, sparely catchy synth and guitar squiggles, oddly accented vocal phrasing. Alluring stuff. Go stream “Cactus.” It’s delicious.

 

24. VIOLENS – True

Not as glossy as the debut: I expected a Spandau Ballet moment given the LP title and the players. But True shifts the timeline a few gens along to early shoegaze, artfully bruised blurs of guitar distortion and other-end-of-the-tunnel singing. The pace is quick, lively. The songs are short, lively. True doesn’t play out like an album might, more like a series of compilation tracks, which might account for its rootlessness. It sounds like satellite radio set to an early-‘90s alt channel in a sun-baked world where rainy Seattle never happened.

 

23. ESCORT – Escort

Disco revivalism, good enough to share the same breath as non-Hegarty Hercules And Love Affair, mining the post-Fever vein that offered two basic approaches: rich Nile Rodgers rhythm guitar or gleaming NRG synths as lead instrument. That there’s little runaway 4/4 hi-hatting speaks to Escort’s determination to avoid cheese while paying homage to the likes of CHIC and Cerrone. Escort is actually a collection of singles topped up with new tracks, an ideal band primer and a surprisingly cohesive listen. Long may they boogie. I hear the live show is excellent.

 

22. GRIMES – Visions

Before long you’ll have to beat the copycats off with a stick, but as the pool dilutes it’s important to remember how good Visions sounded last winter, when its clubby loops and surprisingly sturdy songs withstood critical listening and gimmicky singing. This is a patchwork quilt of deceptive ruggedness. Even as the songs’ recurring motifs take root, dropped beats and sudden incursions function as creative disruptions, building tension. Loops spring back into action, refreshed and rested, with new momentum. It’s just a new way of remixing the same sandwich. Today it’s GarageBand, 35 years ago it was Tom Moulton and a scalpel. The song still matters most.

 

21. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI – Mature Themes

He’s got me playing a five-minute, one-note joke about schnitzel on repeat. I’m also partial to the gloriously stupid rock star confidential one (“I don’t want to burn any bridges/but I can’t get enough of those bitches…my name is Ariel, and I’m a nymph”). And then for good measure, a totally believable ‘70s soft-rock AM pastiche (“Only In My Dreams”), and a fuzzy, strobe-lit miniature about ordering pink slime for dinner (that’s be “Pink Slime”). It’s not quite as good as Before Today, but that was a record of past triumphs re-made, while this jolly little thing was built from scratch. The surface LOLs obscure sinister strangeness. What was that Bukowski line about insanity?

~~~

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 20-16

 

20. JOHN CALE – Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood

That point in “Hemingway” where he takes his line endings into shrieking falsetto is vintage Cale, that no-nonsense post-Velvets arty bastard with the stentorian voice and bravura instrumental dash. People fell over themselves this year with Springsteen’s bid for old glory; I say longtime Cale admirers are in for a similar treat. Sonically, Nookie Wood is closer to Artificial Intelligence than his Island Records peak, but the craft and delivery is worthy of the younger, chip-on-shoulder 1970s Cale. Keening keyboards cut a jagged swath through the trampling “Scotland Yard” and the misty “Vampire Cafe,” noise pollution pock-marks the more sedate tracks, Cale and producer Danger Mouse (!) play audio tricks with his voice throughout. Nookie Wood’s energy would look good on an artist half Cale’s age. We’re still learning how long rock artists might produce top-grade work: to date, this stands as the best record made by a septuagenarian.

 

19. FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar

Starkly pretty, kohl-eyed post-punk from a Dum Dum Girl drummer who clearly heard her calling, and we’re luckier for it. (There’s an even better record from an indie stalwart’s drummer later in this list: Ringo and Moony never made albums this good.) What I like here is all the dark and lovely tension’s achieved without resorting to death grips and trickery: Interstellar builds its moody grooves on simple Severin and Budgie-calibre bass and drum tracks, its modest melodicism on chorused guitars and two-finger synth washes. All building block basics, but the arrangements are a blast: after all those years in garage-pop bands, Frankie knows how to fill a room in sound without fury.

 

18. HOT CHIP – In Our Heads

Looking back across five Hot Chip LPs it strikes me this is the first really good one. I don’t know if they’re cured of the tendency to pad with tuneless synth ballads, but In Our Heads raises HC’s game a couple notches. Non-single “Motion Sickness” equals anything they’ve ever put out on 45. First side’s paced with three singles that wouldn’t be out of place on Some Great Reward, such is its emotional relevancy and dedication to songcraft. The record backslides after that, although “Let Me Be Him” is terrific: the kind of soft-hued reflective sprawl that turned to mush on prior LPs hangs tough this time, peaking and cooling like a distance runner training in intervals. That the warm down lasts three minutes hardly matters – “Let Me Be Him” is one of the best eight-minute songs of the year, and maybe the best tune in the HC canon.

 

17. TOY – Toy

Where motorik meets psych, with a dash of flinty-eyed post-punk and better shag hairdos than anyone since Badfinger. Mojo’s treating TOY like the cool new kid at school with the to-die-for genealogy, and I can hear where its readership might want to slip this on between Tame Impala spins. Jesus, that’d be quite the double-bill down at the Marquee, actually. The sound is beautiful – better than the songs at this point (meaning we might get very lucky with this group, in time) – a throbbing, charging mass of gargling guitars, gnarled keyboards, Neu! drums and Tom Dougall’s frosty speak-singing. The groove songs’ll lift you out of your seat, the mopey-yet-brighter pop tones sport traces of Devoto and the Reid brothers. Score another point for record collector rock.

 

16. SUN AIRWAY – Soft Fall

Windswept and widescreen synthpop. I might be more careful about invoking “Your Silent Face” if this were my last bullet, but “Symphony In White No. 2” really does share New Order’s stately, epic sweep. The strings are more rhythmic motif than hook, but the gambit works. That rush of blood to the head permeates Soft Fall; “Close” sounds like Chris Martin fronting Cut Copy’s “Unforgettable Season.” In fact, you could argue Sun Airway = “Speed Of Sound”-era Coldplay – Jonny Buckland – Capitol quarterly operating budget + better lyrics. Or: gateway purchase for indie kids who fret about getting caught buying guilty pleasures.

~~~

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 15-11

 

15. WILD NOTHING – Nocturne

I confess it took me two months to split the shrinkwrap on Nocturne. ‘Til now, Wild Nothing’s been one of those Anglophone bedroom bands with one great tune and nice sound design. But on Nocturne’s third song, a he-man strides out from the perfumed fog to snap “I know where to find you, I know where you go” in a pretty decent Phil Oakey, and it’s jarring. And we’re off: the songs mean business. A jagged guitar riff here, a helicoptering delay-ridden line there, singing that doesn’t disintegrate on re-entry, rhythm beds that might even nudge the woofer. Point is, there’s been quite enough of this wallpaper indie, and now that seems to have passed, good writers like Jack Tatum are making better records. I’ve never had to learn his song titles before: “Only Heather,” “Nocturne,” “This Chain Won’t Break,” “Rheya”: collect ‘em all!

 

14. DIVINE FITS – A Thing Called Divine Fits

The kind of rangy, snarly rock record that sounds super cool coming out of any speaker in any circumstance, simple and catchy as an old Roy Thomas Baker Cars LP, without the gang vocals. I don’t want Spoon to die for Divine Fits to live, but Britt Daniel’s a mensch for going all the way on his date with newly single Dan Boeckner. It’s a Reese Peanut Butter Cup ad as rock parable. You’ve never heard so much dry ‘n’ gritty synth on a Spoon record, nor so much white-knuckled tension on a Wolf/Furs set. On the writing front, Boeckner outpoints Daniel by a nose, but he’s got nowhere else to put his songs right now: this is his day job. He’s also a proven master collaborative partner; now Daniel is too. Extra points to vet producer Nick Luanay for the snappy, tinder-dry sound, and third Fit Sam Brown for beating the blood out of his kit.

 

13. TRUST – Trst

I saw Trust open for Washed Out in 2010, and although the vibe was great the songs choked in deadpan gothic squalor. That problem’s been resolved. Cavernously reverbed yet thoughtfully gated, good melodies ooze over Maya Postepski’s clipped drumbeats, mostly via bell-like synths , thickly whooshing pads and the Vincent Price-with-a-mouthful-of-marbles vocal stylings of Robert Alfons, who manages to sound like the sleaziest cryptkeeper since Peter Murphy, without actually tipping over into stagey ridiculousness. Alfons’ range is good: the peppier tracks sound awfully energized with his filthy-sounding lisp in a higher, brighter register. Trst wraps with its best track, “Sulk,” which restates the band’s strengths: pretty gusts of atmos, monophonic melodies, a vampire singing on the edge of sunlight, a metronomic beat and sympathetic mixing from Damien Taylor, who recorded Postepski’s other band, Austra.

 

12. TINDERSTICKS – The Something Rain

Night music. Something like The National, but more soulfully cinematic and instrumentally varied, with shards of sax, twinkling glockenspiel and keening violins complementing trad rock tools to build mid- and crawl-tempo set pieces about disorientation and disappointment. “Show Me Everything” and “This Fire Of Autumn” exemplify The Something Rain’s deft restraint, with each instrument, including Stuart Staples’ voice, woven into a fluid mass, determined but mostly absent of typical rock accents. These songs have momentum, and eventually steam up the windows, but the thing is you never see the switch being thrown. Nice work, you magicians. “Come Inside” is gorgeous and it knows it, hovering for nearly eight hypnotic minutes, a reminder of mood music’s supreme purpose: to enhance what’s already in play. It works even better on repeat. (Trust me, there are worse ways to spend 23 minutes.)

 

11. CHROMATICS – Kill For Love

“Moody as film music” is metaphorically apt in the wake of Johnny Jewel’s work on Gosling’s Drive; Kill For Love never hurries to the payoff, like it knows you’ve paid your admission and aren’t budging before the end credits. I used to delight in playing 45s at 33 RPM because of the detail the speed reduction uncovered. Kill For Love sounds like one of those experiments, just fast enough to outrace claims of sluggishness, brimming with noirish menace. Think Bowie and Moroder’s version of “Cat People.” The pristine percussion clicks, new wave guitars dripping in phase and flange, serrated synth lines and just-fucked vocs are as compelling as an ‘80s coke-and-crime flick. Two-thirds of Kill For Love – don’t forget, this is an 80-minute double – is very, very good.

~~~

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 10-6

 

10. GRIZZLY BEAR – Shields

I haven’t listened to Veckatimest since the end of ’09 for a reason – I remember it as forgettable – but I’m glad I don’t hold grudges. On Shields, the tight chamber pop combo playing and singing remains the signature, but a new vigor drags songs out of their precious insularity and into a space where they might be enjoyed, not merely admired. Some of the best songs emerged from writing sessions pitting Ed Droste’s singing against Daniel Rossen’s strumming, surviving the transition from bristling demo to sophisto group arrangement. The new explosiveness – throttling (“Speak In Rounds”), tumbling (“Sun In Your Eyes”), thundering (“Half Gate”) – is bracing.

 

9. PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend

Bowie once said the dullest thing you could do with a synthesizer was stick to the presets. As someone who once tried to write a Jan & Dean surf soundalike using general MIDI sounds, I sheepishly concur. So does this record. It’s a masterclass in slicing, dicing, whipping and mashing every enlisted instrument, before loading each back into fairly straightforward dream-pop arrangements. The result is a kaleidoscopic, trebly shimmer built into some spectacularly lovely music. Sonic architecture, first order.

 

8. KILLING JOKE – MMXII

This lot must be on Creatine. Not that Joke ever needs an apocalypse prediction to rattle off a list of complaints, but MMXII did give ‘em a handy soapbox. And Jaz Coleman did disappear for a bit there in the summer. There’s possibly more automated response in the Joke camp than in Morrissey’s, except these guys make better records. And what a record! Every major facet of the Joke sound’s present – throbbing dub, galloping dance-punk, brawling industrial metal, glowering synthpop – united by consistently gripping writing, a spacious mix and Coleman’s commanding vocal presence. MMXII plays like a custom-built festival bill of quality, likeminded acts pared down to a 50-minute highlight package. Against stiff competition,possibly the best Joke LP of this millennium.

 

7. CHAIRLIFT – Something

And to think: this was a shrug-and-buy record by a band on the bubble. Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make. Chairlift 2.0 has largely traded precious art-song for hustling synthpop, using Caroline Polachek’s flexible voice as its bead on the competition. “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about ‘84; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. The chichi numbers which made the cut are simply better than before: “Frigid Spring” is one of the prettiest songs of the year. Chairlift lost a member in the lengthy gap between albums – the guy Polachek was dating. I don’t know how he feels about it, but it’s worked wonders for his old band.

 

6. BAT FOR LASHES – The Haunted Man

It’s more reserved than previous records, nestling into the Hounds Of Love-The Sensual World neighbourhood, if you require a Bush parallel. What lifts “All Your Gold,” “Oh Yeah” and “A Wall” out of the ordinary – twinkling backdrop sounds, a male choir, thundering “Running Up That Hill”-style percussion – might seem elementary, but it’s the intensity that impresses. And when she goes for broke – “Marilyn,” a swirling, soaring set piece with full orchestration in a support role – there is the sense she’s got a “This Woman’s Work” moment in her future. Grand, elegant, soundtrack-calibre art pop.

~~~

Top 25 Albums of 2012, 5-1

 

5. ICE CHOIR – Afar

Unreservedly recommended to anyone with a yen for the sound of ‘80s synthpop – specifically, the sumptuous 1983-1986 vein mined by the likes of Nick Heyward, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Tears For Fears, China Crisis and Bill Nelson. If you own these records – and surely Kurt Feldman, on a busman’s holiday from his day job as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s drummer, must – the Memorex impersonations of moments found in deep tracks will resound, the sonics and manoeuvres as comfortable as that old CFNY or KROQ radio tape in your childhood desk drawer. Afar could stand sharper choruses and/or a few sore thumbs, but it’s a confident, glowing, splendid ride.

 

4. PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air

Album number five wasn’t in the cards for The Blue Nile. The usual agonizingly long wait between albums (1984, 1989, 1996, 2004) wouldn’t be enough to get the band back together this time, to soothe over old slights, so the singer would have to take his song sketches and deliver them in the mode they’ve always called for in the first place, that wee-hour, one-for-my-baby-and-one-more-for-the-road-style dive bar balladry inherent in Sinatra’s suicide records and personified by Tom Waits in the 1970s. But Buchanan was never a piano player like Sinatra’s Bill Miller or Waits himself, so these tracks would stay rudimentary in the extreme, with none of the polish of classic Blue Nile tearjerkers (“Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”). And although some of these songs are so wonderful you can’t help wishing for some of The Blue Nile’s hallmark sparkle – an oceanic delay, a shiver-inducing string pattern, a couple more choruses – they stand on their own, and it’s a treat to have a Buchanan record like this. He is that good.

 

3. TAME IMPALA – Lonerism

Superb conceptual cohesiveness notwithstanding – namely, Kev Parker’s determination to not only play everything on the record, but to play it like a fully functioning band with hungry egos to serve – the most exciting thing about Tame Impala is where the writing looks to be heading. He’s peacocking straight down Broadway with payoff singalong choruses you’ll remember next decade, songs that might even hook a future Rock Band iteration. Have you seen the YouTube clips with the song recognition audience whoops? This guy’s filling a void, a need for rock music with as much immediacy as the gross earworms production orgs are whipping up for the Katys and Justins and Whatnots. But because he’s coming at it from a hypno/psych angle, and because he’s writing songs about longing and belonging, there’s pathos and surrender in even the largest moments. A bear hug of a record.

 

2. SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne

Etienne’s book smarts have never kept them from making terrific pop/dance records, but the conceptualization has ever provided the resonance behind the glittering veneer. Words And Music keys the best Etienne concept yet, a love letter to music fandom from Britain’s greatest music fans. Given the subjectivity of terms like “best” and “greatest,” you only get as much mileage as your belief allows. But I still buy records and read sleevenotes and make end-of-year lists and blabber on with brick-and-mortar clerks, so I might be different from you. (But probably not, if you’re reading this.) Words And Music basically functions as a symposium on music nerding, Etienne smorgasbording several dance music styles in the spirit of Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday, each rendered in would-be 45 single brevity and pop IQ. As such, it’s that rarest of creatures – the mid-to-late-career LP that captures the essence and excellence of a band, a totally serviceable introduction for new initiates who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. The less clubby tracks are superb: the narrative-styled “Over The Border,” the guitar-led “When I Was 17,” the summery summation piece “Haunted Jukebox,” and my favourite, one of my top two songs of 2012, “Answer Song.” Saint Etienne also produced a 10-song More Words disc for the North American tour leg that might’ve made this list on its own merit, by the way. The best pop group of the past two decades hasn’t lost a step.

 

1. BEACH HOUSE – Bloom

Last spring a lucky stroke of scheduling saw four personal favourites release new albums in a three-week span. The new Beach Boys (#30, 2012) was a minor miracle after decades of sad adversity and ridiculous stupidity, while the other three? – they finished in my top four. I’d call that a pretty great showing from this stalwart group. Beach House is, far as I’m concerned, the best band going right now, on the strength of consecutive album-of-the-year wins (Teen Dream – #1, 2010). As they move further away from the indistinct fizz of their 2006 debut, an acute pop sensibility gives their songs greater reach than ever. It’s a given every Beach House song will arrive in a cloud of dry ice, on a bed of boxed beats, wrapped in gauzy organ drones and gnarly liquid guitar lines, with that stentorian contralto on top. But the new dynamic, in place since Teen Dream, is the payoff built into these newer songs, sunburst realized in the form of a soaring vocal bridge or guitar solo. With Bloom, this approaches formula: I’m not sure it matters when the songs are this terrific. The pop tangibility is something their dream pop peers cannot consistently match. The records don’t wear out, the T.V. appearances sound great, the romantic buzz at their shows is palpable. Legrand and Scally have surged to the top of the league as singer, guitar player and co-creators. The incandescent “Lazuli” is one of my top two songs of 2012. The October Kool Haus gig was my favourite small/medium venue show of the year. Beach House is on a roll.

~~~

2012 honourable mentions:

Chris Cohen – Overgrown Path; Stars – The North; Passion Pit – Gossamer; David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant; The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio.

In concert: The Who (Toronto; November 23, 2012)

(click images to enlarge)

In order to get Quadrophenia across on this current North American tour, Pete Townshend isn’t saying anything. It’s got to be hard for rock royalty’s chattiest Cathy to keep it zipped for 90 minutes, but the record didn’t have any between-song chatter, and there’re enough books, liners and docs to explain the plot to new initiates. At long last he’s letting the music do the talking.

Full-album concert presentations seem custom-made for Townshend’s earnest, glowering genius, and The Who, 1969-74 vintage, were an exercise in bringing script to stage, in an ever-widening gyre of ambition. Rock’s most ostentatiously talented performers – one with first-ballot hall of famers at every position – that Who restlessly brayed and brawled, initially as a punishing power-trio-plus singer, and eventually, as a locomotive occasionally run off the tracks by faulty backing tapes. By the time Townshend realized he’d overreached with Quadrophenia – the technology simply hadn’t kept pace with his demands – his righteous fury had become The ‘Oo’s fifth member. The band settled into middle age after that:  new songs flitting between autobiography and harangue, an inessential record on the eve of Keith Moon’s death, fitful tours with a replacement drummer, retirement before age 40. They died when they got old.

This older/wiser/reborn Who, a dependable touring jukebox since 1996, is actually touring Quadrophenia for the second time. A 1996-97 tour hedged bets with 15 players and extraneous exposition to explain the Quad conceit (voiceover narratives; Billy Idol and Gary Glitter walk-on roles), but in trusting his audience’s Wiki-sourcing capabilities, Townshend’s doing Quad‘s live flow a big favour.

 

From the moment the house lights dimmed at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last Friday (November 23rd) it was like a huge, public listening party. Arrangements hewed closely to the recorded versions, the only deviations coming from a false start on “The Punk And The Godfather” (mike failure on Townshend’s guitar), a double-length “5:15,” and some pauses between songs. The 82-minute album wrapped in 92, after which Pete finally spoke. Typical Townshend. You knew the words were bubbling up from the minute he took the stage. Apologized for ignoring the crowd’s cheers. Recalled boozy nights and venereal diseases from Toronto visits past. And so forth.

As usual, Roger Daltrey said less but took the lion’s share of the singing. He had a good night. In fact, Daltrey sounds rejuvenated, crisper and brighter than on any other post-John Entwistle tour. Always The Who’s cleanest physical specimen, his descent into murky shout-singing has been frustrating and unfortunate, in itself the reason I didn’t bother seeing them play Hamilton in 2008. Whether it’s Quad’s lower register vocals or the miracles of modern science, he’s recaptured some of the spiky brio of yore, imbuing flat-out rockers like “The Real Me,” “The Punk And The Godfather” and “Doctor Jimmy” with the sputtering panache Townshend’s best songs’ve always demanded of him.

On the pounding, brass-charged “5:15,” he roared, out of his brain on the train. On the tender-to-thundering “Love, Reign O’er Me,” he wailed. And, oh, the Toronto crowd had been waiting. As one of Quad’s recurring motifs, “Love” made three earlier appearances in the program, and each time the crowd sang its refrain, even providing the answering “rain over me, rain over me” line where it wasn’t required. The closing aria after an hour-and-a-half of preamble, “Love” owned the audience from its opening piano figure. Applause like waves battering the shore. Soft verse, bruising chorus, soft verse, bruising chorus. And then that gorgeous, swinging “dry and dusty road” bridge, one of the finest things Townshend’s ever built, shimmering strings whistling past the ear, tawny guitar and piano licks spattering about like sudden summer rain. Oh, God, I need a drink of cool, cool ra-aa-ainnn. Two shattering screams of “looooove,” at either end of the last chorus. A crashing conclusion on a brown, “A Day In The Life”-reminiscent note. The Who swung for the fences with this one. Home run.

No wonder Roger left the talking to Pete.

 

The video screen backdrop – three high-def orbs hung above a widescreen display – cycled Mod-specific images all night long. Entwistle and Moon weren’t forgotten. Both of ‘em got tribute solos culled from old tapes. A late-career Ox solo appeared midway through “5:15” – technically, it’s a startling, damn awesome thing – but it ran on a little long and detracted from the song. Moon’s solo, however, was brilliantly rendered. Before the show I wondered how they’d cover his absence in “Bell Boy.” Well, here they went for the jugular, inserting the video and audio from the May 1974 Charlton show into the performance, Moony’s mug lighting up the centre video orb with live isolation shots of Townshend and Daltrey bookending. By cleverly featuring present-day Who drummer Zak Starkey in the centre orb during the rest of the song – his lone video spotlight all night – The Who turned “Bell Boy” into an emotionally resonant device any Who fan would dig.

Pete’s younger sib Simon covers high vocal notes and second guitar as well as ever.  And as in 1996-97, he also sang a piercing lead on “The Dirty Jobs,” a surprise highlight punctured by some of Starkey’s most Moonlike drumming. If Daltrey’s not up to reaching those high notes, Simon’s the guy for the job. And speaking of dirty jobs, Pino Palladino’s been turned up on this tour. Stepping in for Entwistle on four days’ notice in 2002 must have been the ultimate in thankless tasks – go ahead, you try it – but he’s playing with more pluck than before. Likewise, Starkey seems more inclined to go for broke. It feels like these guys are full band members now (although, unless I missed the news release, only Starkey’s been given keys to the office). They make a great backing unit. With Townshend still in remarkable form – he windmills and sings with purpose, clarity and pissed-off conviction – this Who isn’t in danger of damaging its rep for chops.

 

The encore cherry-picked from their stable of FM staples: three from Who’s Next, plus “Pinball Wizard” and “Who Are You,” understandably safe choices after 90 minutes of deep cataloguing. No disappointments here: I admit it’s nice to get a break from the autopiloted Tommy selections of recent tours, although every Who show needs a taste of that “Pinball” riff.  And the world really does stop spinning when “Won’t Get Fooled Again” heads into that elongated synth trance. That Townshend could bind such brilliant, unhinged players to that whirring soundtrack, suspend time for the breakdown, and usher everything back in on Daltrey’s Herculean bellow, is the mark of genius. The Who’s best song, they never deliver anything less than a good reading, and even on one of his off-nights (Toronto 2006, to name one) Roger keeps enough in reserve to make that final scream count. On a good night, it’s groovy gravy.

By show’s end only Roger and Pete remained. (The latter had never left the stage: amazing, considering he’d done a book singing earlier in the day. When do you sleep, Pete?) Closing with 2006’s elegiac “Tea And Theatre” is tradition now, an acoustic lament at odds with the Sturm und Drang tethered to The Who legend. But this is where we’re at in 2012: in-fighting and chemical excess consigned to history, the two survivors – the most important members of a group where everyone was indispensable to building the legend – now gentler and warmer, no longer in unhappy competition with past glories, but accepting them, and working to honour them. “It’s a tough, tough ride,” Townshend admitted of staging Quadrophenia, but he ought to be very satisfied with the results to date.

In concert: Saint Etienne (Toronto; October 24, 2012)

 

Vet bands touring abroad on modest budgets don’t do it for the gold rush, they do it for love and community. And although Saint Etienne’s 2012 North American tour itinerary might’ve ruffled fandom feathers in overlooked locales, we oughtta cherish what we’re given. It’s easy for me to take the high road because Toronto was the first stop on this nine-date mini-tour, but then again, I wasn’t so chuffed when we lost the lottery last time.

Etienne were uncharacteristically quiet for a half-dozen years – not unproductive, mind (babies, remastered catalogue, a fan-only Christmas record, and on) – but May’s Words And Music By Saint Etienne was the tonic their troops needed: an unabashed by-fans-for-fans love letter to music itself; songs about discovering, collecting and growing old with music, decked out in typical club-ready Etienne stripes. Intelligence has always been one of their sexiest traits, and Words And Music is chock-full of that allure. It’s also one of the year’s best records.

 

Et were still warm enough to place music on Grey’s Anatomy with the last record, but inactivity’s killed career momentum stateside. You could taste the look-before-leaping wariness around tour plans: nine dates in small venues for anticipated crowds of 500, with no live musician accompaniment. Appreciation exists in some quarters: the new LP made #26 UK and scored an 82 on ye olde Metacritic. But it’s pretty scattered on this side of the pond.

This touring Et is as nuclear family as can be: Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell, plus figurative/literal in-law Debsey Wykes, who’s recorded and toured intermittently with the band since the second album, and is married to Sarah’s husband’s brother. (To do my Pete Frame diligence here: Sarah’s Martin is the manager and Debsey’s Paul was an early touring guitarist with the band.)

 

I had fears the small company set-up mightn’t work. Live singing to pre-recorded tracks, triggers and whatnot always risks little brush fires. And before someone bumped the Opera House PA by 10 db a few songs into the show I thought, Shit, it’s going to be one of those nights. The opener “Like A Motorway” fell on that grenade: Wykes clobbering the cowbell a fraction off the beat and too close to the mike, the volume failing to fill the half-empty room, no unpredictable guitar feedback in sight to force the sound guy to attend to the mix. I’ve seen better starts.

Live Etienne will always brave storms on Cracknell’s charm, and she could probably rescue the most lost of causes with a grin and a shake of her feather boa. This was Etienne’s third Opera House booking in five Toronto appearances, and they must’ve found their old locker in back, because Cracknell was in chummy command from the starting pistol. Radiant in a silver sequined mini-dress and go-go boots, she mixed diva, coquette and indie heroine poses throughout the gig with what you might call casual aplomb. And it’s not a conceit; Saint Etienne are too smart for that. Cracknell is the lovely girl-next-door from B-movies or off-Broadway productions, just a lucky break away from the mainstream, fully possessed of the necessary attributes. She grants cheeky, teasing glimpses of starlet poses without tipping into overt solipsism, as if to let everyone in on the joke – Etienne’s fans are likewise a smart bunch – but to get really meta about it, the shimmies ‘n’ shakes are genuine, affectionate nods to pop’s showbiz roots, while her throaty, jocular between-song patter comes straight from indie rock: the Saint Etienne aesthetic in a nutshell. A 1993 liner note bears my favourite quote about the band: “it’s seldom said Saint Etienne hide their light under a bushel, but I applaud anyone so sharp they run the risk of cutting themselves.” Thinking and dancing go together with this lot.

 

As performers go, Saint Etienne aren’t musos. Behind their Macs ‘n’ samplers bank, Wiggs and Stanley are more Ralf und Florian than Ferrante & Teicher, and no matter the inventiveness of their arrangements, the canned aspect of this presentation is hard to shake. Wykes is the most capable performer, her singing setting the reference for Cracknell’s odd stray note. Her full duet on band staple “Who Do You Think You Are” remains her signature contribution, all velvet calm and tonal purity.

Sarah was on generally good singing form. Etienne’s songs rely more on notes than lung power, and even though she’s grown a little whispery on recent records, that quality falls away onstage. Any arrangement modifications by Stanley and Wiggs don’t involve re-keying the tunes, and aside from slightly undersinging a couple songs mid-show, she made her jumps with room to spare, sometimes even with her creamy coo of yore. (“Nothing Can Stop Us” soared, for instance.) You’ll never hear wild live reinterpretations with this girl, so all of the above pointed to a pretty clean opening night.

 

Etienne aired six Words And Music tunes. “Popular” was just too frothy for my tastes, but the others came off well. “When I Was Seventeen” and “Haunted Jukebox” are as close as Etienne get to indie rock, and while I’d really prefer hearing a live band tear a strip off, these versions had a nice, bustling quality about them. “DJ” and “I’ve Got Your Music” easily fit into the dance canon (the latter giving everyone a laugh when Crackers brain-cramped the second verse). The revelation-of-the-night award went to “Tonight.” It didn’t do much for me as an advance single in the spring. But of course it’s the thematic centrepiece of Words And Music, essentially describing gig-going rituals over a chugging, Eddy Grant “Time Warp” beat. In wisely adhering to the longer album version, its extended outro elicited a lot of head-bobs and torso-twists from the crowd. I love it when a song suddenly makes sense. (It almost made up for the absence of the glorious “Answer Song.”)

The remaining 10 songs were cherry-picked oldies, mostly from ‘90s albums (only “A Good Thing” made the cut from the three 2000-2005 LPs). “Spring” and “Nothing Can Stop Us” conjured the loved-up summer of 1991 all over again, and the long break in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” afforded some ginchy dance moves from Cracknell. A throbbing “Burnt Out Car” was a great surprise inclusion; “Sylvie” and “You’re In A Bad Way” more obvious picks that kept feet shifting. That the perennial “He’s On The Phone” sealed the encore was no surprise at all. Nor was its euphoric afterglow.

 

On a personal note, while I’d’ve loved another 20 minutes of music, a few of us were able to make up for it with 20 minutes out back after the show, chatting warmly with the foursome about everything from Bob’s impending book to Debsey’s old Birdie records. After 22 years, Saint Etienne are unlikely to surprise either by creative redirection or sudden mainstream success. They are craftspeople of the first order, making brand-recognizable art of consistent, high quality. They’ll play eight more shows over here to eight more groups of committed fans, knowing that while the dressing rooms may never grow larger, the dedicated affection these fans hold for their music matches Etienne’s labours in making it. And that’s what Words And Music is all about, Charlie Brown.

In concert: New Order (Toronto; October 23, 2012)

 

Although I buy and – maybe two-thirds of the time, enjoy – 50 or 60 new records every year, I’m one of those people who’ll sniff innovation’s slowed to a crawl in new music, at least in the areas I claim to have knowledge of. Imitation’s been flattering giants of innovation forever, and while I’m glad so many current bands have good ears and good taste, when one of the titans wanders into town, I hide the new records in the closet so they’re not blinded by the light. New Order played the first of two Toronto shows Tuesday night (October 23), by which time I’d been living in a new music vacuum for the better part of a week.

This is a different New Order from the one that last played Toronto in 1993. That old Order was an active recording entity, wasn’t in the practice of playing Joy Division songs and had Peter Hook in tow. This newer Order is Bernard Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant project plus Gillian Gilbert, and while Hooky doubtless brought expulsion upon himself, a purist could be forgiven a twinge of sadness for the brilliant bassist’s absence. Fans romanticize about founder members in the fold, but as Sumner told Mojo earlier this year, we don’t have to live with the guy, so that’s that.

Although New Order made its share of straightforward album tracks, they always pulled the stops out for singles, which is why Substance ranks as one of pop music’s critically important compilations. Ungainly as early live NO could be – go trawl YouTube – their singles were audacious forays into the sound of next year. I don’t think there’s another pop/rock band from the past three decades who charted entire courses with the same successful daring. Rock eyeing dancefloors, synthpop seeking sinew, techno aspiring to the home stereo – any music melding rock instrumentation with sequencers and synths, or post-punk’s anything-goes credo with art rock’s extended instrumental passages, or indie’s shambolic playing with disco’s measured rhythms owes no small debt to trailblazing 45s like “Procession,” “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Temptation,” “Blue Monday,” “Confusion,” “Thieves Like Us,” “The Perfect Kiss” and “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

 

These were huge undertakings, a few of them on par with “Good Vibrations,” “I Am The Walrus” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for scope and influence. The songs were so ambitiously daft, it’s no wonder earlier technology vexed New Order in concert. But listeners with long memories have heard the performances tighten up due to better soft/hardware; souvenir DVDs from 1998, 2002 and 2005 showed New Order – bolstered to heretofore unimagined heights by incorporating the Joy Division songbook – morphing from mercurial to dependable stage performers. It’s made the prospect of any New Order gig a very exciting one.

So, New Order trades the thrill/agony of unpredictability in for accomplishment’s certainty: my October 23rd Toronto show was probably pretty close to recent ones you caught in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, with the prime variables being venue, song selection and Barney’s voice. What we all (hopefully) experienced in 2012 was 100 minutes’ worth of wonderful post-punk dance rock, surrounded by cheering, invigorated fans. In Toronto, the audience stood from the opening song and roared after every break. We got 17 songs, 14 from the New Order years and three from Joy Division. And Barney, bless his soul, he’s still just scrapin’ by on the higher notes, but his tone’s thicker and surer with middle-age.

The opening salvo included some nice second-drawer singles (“Crystal” and “Regret”), but they were just table-setting for the next batch: a corrosive “Ceremony,” a furiously beautiful “Age Of Consent,” a raucous “Isolation,” and 24 Hour Party People’s “Here To Stay.” That last one might seem like a throwaway unless you focussed on human metronome Stephen Morris in full-attack mode. In which case: well-played, Mauer.

A stately “Your Silent Face” followed, perhaps to allow blood to return to Morris’ fingertips. One of the era’s loveliest songs, it also bore one of New Order’s early strokes of genius: massive orchestral string patterns in place of choruses. So many of the great New Order songs used space as a dramatic device: I’m sure the band viewed the singer’s voice as another instrument, soloing for a verse, then giving way to a guitar or synth passage of equal or greater length, rather than hurrying to get to a vocal chorus or bridge. Many a classic New Order tune ran vocal-free for minutes at a time. (Space, as we might hear it.) In “Your Silent Face,” the string melody says more than the voice. In concert, it’s mesmerizing. End-of-song applause erupts and it’s like waking from a dream.

 

Stone classics kept coming: majestic singalongs (“Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith”), pillars of long-form excellence (“The Perfect Kiss,” “Blue Monday”) and the romping union of both (“Temptation”). For each moment of mortality – Barney’s deepened voice hasn’t the winsome quality of the recorded “Triangle,” and the heavily programmed “Kiss” will give them fits forevermore – there was an astonishing response: I’m not sure anything will ever match “The Perfect Kiss”’ gorgeous, stampeding coda for breathless thrills, but “Temptation” comes close. In fact, it was more consistently great. Its cycling riffs, whooped vocal codas and explosive drum fills were dizzyingly forceful, the disco genre-derived breakdown ratcheting intensity to fever pitch. “Temptation” was a bull and the Sony Centre its china shop.

After that, New Order took a powder and came back as Joy Division. Sumner teased the crowd with song choices (he floated “Atmosphere” but the printed setlist showed “Shadowplay” and “Heart And Soul” as well) before settling on “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” As a singer, he’s no Ian Curtis. I didn’t think it would bother me in person, but the absence of that singular talent still burns. New Order were right to bring the Curtis/JD legacy into the light – in toto, the combined JD/NO songbook is the most impressive body of work in post-punk’s 30-odd years – but it’s a steep climb to channel those vocals.

Speaking of uphill battles: how’d the newer guys fare? Phil Cunningham’s not a problem. He plays rugged guitar without overcrowding the songs. (Inept percussionist, though: those weren’t George Michael Bluth-calibre fills on “The Perfect Kiss.”) And Tom Chapman, saddled with Hooky’s legacy, was equal to the mammoth task. No low-slung axe-playing or stage-hogging antics, but his tone, presence and expressiveness were respectful to Hook’s twanging leads. I only counted one disappointment, a total bail-out on the intricate, genius thread that runs through “Waiting For The Sirens’ Call.”

At present, New Order is a travelling jukebox. Whether they eventually consummate their roster makeover with records is anyone’s guess. They’re a must-see, though. Music like this – thunderously exciting and unabashedly melodic, concocted without mainstream aspirations but massively impactful on same – isn’t dime-a-dozen. Days later, I suddenly notice my new records are still in the closet.

In concert: Beach House (Toronto; October 13, 2012)

 

It’s just my unpaid opinion Beach House might be the best band on the planet today, but I like my logic – 2010’s best album, maybe 2012’s, too – and even more, I like how they supported the claim by laying nearly every one of Teen Dream’s and Bloom’s jewels out before a Toronto crowd last Saturday (October 13, 2012).

On a night when Major League Baseball appropriated the current record’s opening track as table-setting music for a national T.V. audience, Beach House had its own gang packed shoulder-to-shoulder at the Kool Haus, no mere club date this, but rather a venerable “transitional” spot for indies on the verge of endorsement nirvana (think The Cardigans after Romeo + Juliet, or The National after Obama). Just when I think Beach House’s smoky ruminations might go over the gen pop’s head I remember The Cure – a band this group occasionally evokes on Bloom – have played stadiums for the past 25 years.

For 93 minutes and 18 songs, the Kool Haus crowd tensed and released, tensed and released. None of the usual flinty response from the locals here – instead, lusty shouts of song recognition, boisterous mid-song applause after certain passages, plumes of pot smoke, and the telltale thumbprint of any surging band: couples locked in our-song embraces. Bloom came out after the school year ended, so they had the summer to explore its concupiscent possibilities. And for those who didn’t, there was Victoria Legrand directing everyone to acquire at least one telephone number before heading home. Now, there’s someone who knows her audience.

 

Justifiably proud of the fact they’ve developed into a marvellous band, Legrand and Alex Scally ignored 2006’s watery debut and only dipped twice into the nearly-there Devotion, so the set provided a very of-the-moment picture of the Beach House approach: triggered synth-and-rhythm patterns overlaid with Scally’s frankly amazing guitar effects, Legrand’s keyboard chordings and a live percussionist (I’d call Daniel Franz a drummer, but that would minimize the artful breadth of his playing style).

It’s formulaic – hey, so was Motown – but they’ve kitchen-sinked the songs with winning hands: the keyboard-and-guitar interplay full of seductive dynamics and subtly rhythmic invocations; the woozily romantic, slightly fatalistic lyrics expressively sung in soaring lines. As the melodies have grown sharper and the vocals more confident, it’s no wonder Beach House has outpaced its dream-pop peers and rejected their own early records; the rousing tangibility of their newer songs is well beyond most others’ ken.

 

Legrand’s a dynamite singer. With hardly any tremolo in her elongated melodic lines, her dense, husky voice weaves in and out of similarly stately keyboard leads, creating an intense, mid-range wash that always seems on the verge of sunburst. And when she goes for it – usually accompanied by Scally grappling heroically with his guitar and effects pedals – the results’re spectacular. “10 Mile Stereo,” “Myth,” “Wishes” – they all sport these bristling bridges. And since the music’s mid-tempo or slower, and since Legrand’s lyric lines are usually under nine syllables long, she holds more notes than a treasury department. Great breath control.

The sound was awfully good, sculpted and thick. Scally eschews chords for single-note lines, providing the brightness and contrast to Legrand’s drones. His searing solo in “On The Sea” was gorgeously, eye-wateringly clear, bringing ‘round one of those mid-song audience cheers. I’ve since revisited the recorded version with fresh appreciation, but at Kool Haus it sounded better: a mighty, MBV-esque blur. Franz’s percussion splashed and flashed all night long – he had some crazy long reverb on those cymbals, man – a sensible complement to the overall mix.

A few thoughts on “Lazuli.” Whatta choon. Scally recounted a cute story about finding the “Lazuli” keyboard at Paul’s Boutique in Kensington market. The Bloom version leaves nothing to be desired, but still – to paraphrase Bryan Ferry – sometimes you can beat perfection in concert. I’m not sure Beach House did – the dirty synth arpeggio was mixed too low at the outset and the staggered, three-part vocal round in the outro is hard for Legrand and Scally to replicate alone onstage – but, holy cats, is it a fine piece of architecture. The “ha ha, ha ha ha ha” refrain sounds like a first kiss. The chorus sounds like a second one. A Scally bridge, in elegantly curled notes, offers a little breathing room before the closing vocal round, which has the good sense to run on for two dizzyingly lovely minutes. Last night, post-round, as “Lazuli” downshifted to a most satisfying conclusion, someone beside me said, “Holy shit.” Which is what you say when something jaw-droppingly great happens. Beach House are jaw-droppingly great right now. Miss ‘em at your peril.

In concert: The Beach Boys (Darien, NY; June 29, 2012)

Showing the moves that got them The Monkey’s Uncle: The Beach Boys at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, June 29, 2012.
Note: click on all images to enlarge

I saw The Beach Boys again Friday night, a pokey, four-hour-drive-plus-one-international-border crossing from home. That’s dedication. I was either too young or too ignorant to see the band before a lineup featuring Brian Wilson and Al Jardine had to be billed as a reunion, and this 50th anniversary shebang might be the greatest mulligan I’ll get in my lifetime of attending concerts.

I wrote 2,000 words on the Toronto show last week; I’m not about to do that again. This second show – at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center near Buffalo – reaffirmed everything I wrote earlier, so I’ll direct you to that review for a more typical blow-by-blow account.

There were a few differences between the shows. Four songs were switched out for three recent set additions, including a pair from the tag end of the 1970s, which isn’t a bad idea because the Beach Boys were still charting minor hits in those days and I’m all for a balanced overview. The Boys should be commended: the song list for this tour’s cleared 60, with around 48 played each night. Every week there’s something tested at soundcheck and added to the rotation. But on the other side of the ledger, Mike Love did a seamy bit of shilling I’d read about online: buy nine copies of the new CD, get an band-autographed tenth. He didn’t mention this in Toronto, and I’m betting it’s because Canadian sales wouldn’t do squat for their spot in the Billboard 200.

 

The Darien crowd was in a terrific mood, all lusty cheers, singalongs, booty-bumpin’. There are certainly people at these shows who hadn’t heard of David Marks six months ago, or will never hear The Wondermints’ Bali. But hey, you try figuring out which demographic’s most responsible for the peal of delight that surges like a tidal wave as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” segues from “Sloop John B.” Does it matter? It’s the sound of every person in the joint in a state of rapture. The songs move you, whoever you think you are. Years ago, Sean Lennon, a kid who’d know something about great rock bands, said “I can’t be depressed if I listen to The Beach Boys.” Damned if he isn’t right. There are indeed places you can go to lock out all your worries and your fears, as the old song goes. A Beach Boys concert is one such place.

Brian did well on “Good Timin’,” one of those recent set additions. He had a good night, slightly better than in Toronto – more patter and body language, more involved during his Fender encore, often very clear in the blend, about equal on his leads. Bri band stalwart Taylor Mills flew in from Texas to catch a show and lend a little shimmer to “Marcella.” Brian told the audience a cute, misleading story about her – not that any of us realized it at the time, but I swear he’s still got that mischievous imp about him. I worry these three-hour shows are too much for Brian, but even though he looks spent by the end-of-show bow, he works hard on his leads, and I think he’s learned a lot about performance in the past 12 years, pacing himself accordingly. And he gets the loudest cheers. I always think of David Leaf’s line about Tinkerbelle, and if Leaf’s right, the crowd’s doing the auteur a lot of good.

The Beach Boys have got game. Consider: no other performer’s drawing from a deeper, greater song list; the backing band’s gorgeously panoramic performances and the front line’s superb singing’ll take your breath away; on any given night you’re hearing 25 or 26 Top 40 hits. All bases are covered. It’s the best satellite radio station you’ve never heard. Hey Mike, this is the travelling jukebox you’ve always dreamt of.

 

“Kokomo” is awful, though, the one moment during my shows when the spell shatters. It’s charmless, hack pastiche, but damnit, they hold it back ‘til the encore. It gets a huge roar of approval when it’s mentioned earlier in the set during one of Love and Bruce Johnston’s scripted routines. But it flounders in this company, dull and hollow until the chorus briefly sparks to life. The funny thing is, with all this authentic Beach Boys sound flying out of the PA for nearly three hours, this band can’t seem to make it sound much like a Beach Boys song. Ain’t that ironic?

 

Sometimes I think this tour’s happened as some kind of karmic restitution for years of squandered talent, litigious ridiculousness and awful hats. But the same stubborn resistance to terminal implosion likely paved the way for 2012’s unlikely and remarkable resurgence. The Beach Boys were like the hydra: cut up one band and three touring factions took its place. As years sped by, every Boy maintained his performing chops, one of them formed a phenomenal live band, a marketing hook appeared on the horizon, and suddenly, this: a Beach Boys all-star team for the ages.

A few years ago some friends – discriminating music fans – suggested we catch a Beach Boys show, but when I warned them they’d be entering a Wilson-free zone they backed out. Some need the assurance of authenticity to embrace an experience. This was the time to go, then, a golden opportunity to catch a Mount Rushmore-calibre pop band on extraordinary form. A Toronto paper mused, “The Beatles aren’t going to tour any time soon – in the realm of pop music, this is as good as it gets.”

Yup.

When this tour wraps, how will you take your Beach Boys? I’d never miss a Brian Wilson solo concert, travel logistics notwithstanding. He’ll take the bulk of this band with him. And it feels like family, y’know? I’d never miss an Al Jardine show either, although I wouldn’t pay as much. A Mike Love-Bruce Johnston show remains the last option, although it boasts two excellent players featuring in this reunion band: John Cowsill, who plays the drums like Animal from The Muppet Show, and guitarist-singer Scott Totten. I think most fans would prefer this reunion group keeps. Been a lot of PR on harmony and bygones and legacy this year, but Love is a road warrior and he’s already booked some Wilson-less South American dates for October. Will Jardine be there? Will Marks? A Beach Boys band with everyone save Wilson could still be an excellent proposition, would feel as though lessons were learned, should be the logical route. If the ball’s in Love’s court – and legal records suggest it is – he’s at a crossroad: how does he avoid fucking with the formula?

On the long drive home I thought about all these things, but mostly I considered myself lucky to have caught this band for a second time in 10 nights, confirming their excellence wasn’t a fever dream or indiscriminate fan worship. There must be ‘bout a million ways to add some music to your day, and this goes to the top of the list.

And now, a little Beach Boys Darien Lake photo dump, followed by the setlist:

Taylor Mills flew in from Texas to join the band on “Marcella” … and learn she recently had a baby. You know something we don’t, Brian?

Mike struggles with the first line from “Be True To Your School” every. single. show.

The ever-evolving setlist’s given Marks a star turn coming out of intermission: “Pet Sounds” pleases the chin-stroking Brianistas and eases the crowd into the second set. Note Mike D’Amico sitting in on drums.

The “Add Some Music To Your Day” segment’s become a heck of a photo op at shows. Someone’s got to ride gain on Jardine, though: at both Toronto and Darien he nearly blew the PA upon taking the mike from the much softer-voiced Johnston.