Trevor Abes: Writer

Category: Music Reviews

Culture Hawker Chronicles: John Bowker and She Said Boom!

From the Toronto Review of Books.

Photo by Ted Best.

Photo by Ted Best.

In this series, Trevor Abes gets to know the people behind the counter at Toronto’s music stores, book shops, and art galleries.

John Bowker is the owner and operator of She Said Boom! Roncesvalles. For five years he served as board director for the Review Cinema and he is the current  chair of the Beautification Committee at the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area. He shares his thoughts on book selling, community involvement and the future of Toronto record stores.

T: How did you co-found She Said Boom!?

J: I had been “seeking a situation” for quite a while, having graduated from journalism at a time when the government believed it was better for Canada to have a %12 unemployment rate than a %12 inflation rate. Eventually, I ignored all the obvious risks of not ever having run a business in my life. A few months later, me and my equally inexperienced partner Randy had signed a lease.

T: Where did you grow up?

J: I was raised in Scarborough, Birchmount-Finch neighbourhood. I moved downtown in my early 20s.

T: What kind of books are Torontonians buying?

J: Contemporary literature is, and always has been, the bread and butter of the store. Non-fiction books have taken a bit of a hit lately, probably due to e-readers.

T: What are the store’s prized possessions at the moment?

J: We have a first edition Slaughterhouse Five, and some really hard-to-find Yukio Mishima and Nabokov hardcovers. I also have The Fugs’ first record and Jodorowsky’s El Topo.

T: Share with us some of your recommended reads and albums.

J: The documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the musician Rodriguez, and his 1970 album, Cold Fact. As for books, I highly recommend  A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

T: Where do you see the record store business in Toronto going in the next decade?

J: You’ve heard of the Internet? iPods? Kobos? No book or record store owner can predict what the next 10 years will bring!

T: Has anybody at She Said Boom! ever met Fifth Column?

J: They are friends. Back in 1995, when I was trying to think of a name for my store, I was playing Fifth Column’s amazing second album, All-Time Queen of the World. The first song is called “She Said, Boom” and I loved the title’s fun and energy. I asked the band if I could use the song title for my store name, and they very graciously said, “Sure!”

T: How would you characterize Roncesvalles?

J: In my work on the Roncesvalles BIA, I have always tried to give the community a feeling of ownership of our street, so that it is a public space, not just a commercial space; I believe this philosophy is part of what makes Roncesvalles such a successful main street and neighborhood.  There is perhaps no better illustration of the strong relationship between businesses and the neighborhood than RoncyWorks, our guerrilla clean-up crew.

Visit him here.

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Never Mind The Musicians: Toronto’s Bill Wood

Photo by Sean Ryan.

Photo by Sean Ryan.

From the Toronto Review of Books

In this series, Trevor Abes sits down with local lights in the Toronto music scene. 

Since 1986’s hit album Just In Time To Be Late, former Eye Eye vocalist Bill Wood has had a family and started a successful renovation business. Yet his dedication to music has never waned. In 2007, he released a solo record called Take It; in 2012, he formed the folk rock outfit Bill Wood and the Woodies and released an EP; and on May 10, 2013, Wood and his daughter appeared on a MindCare-sponsored compilation record in support of mental health.

Trevor: What about music fulfills you?

Bill: For me, the fuel that keeps it all going is the songs. I need to have a certain amount of time in my life chipping away at writing.

Trevor: How do you approach writing songs?

Bill: I have to sit down with no idea and start doodling on the guitar with different rhythms like a painter swishing paint around until I know what to do next.

Trevor: Where does your relationship with folk and rock and roll begin?

Bill: After the first Eye Eye record, two records landed on my lap, Copperhead Road by Steve Earle and Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys: they established in my heart how I wanted to continue writing for the rest of my career.

Trevor: Tell me about the Woodies’ creative process.

Bill: We tighten up the music live in front of people. We play without rehearsing and pull it together organically over two or three gigs.

Trevor: How do you look back on Eye Eye?

Bill: We were signed through CBC Rock Wars and the buzz was fantastic. We toured with Glass Tiger in the middle of their success, and it was a frenzy opening for Platinum Blonde. We were also constantly reminded that the 80s scene was going to end; the record company ordered songs like pizzas.  When Eye Eye ended, I felt a relief to not have to write songs that were products for a market.

Trevor: How did you get into the renovation business?

Bill: I went from stay-at-home dad/pop-star-guy to needing a job when the second Eye Eye album tanked. I worked as a bike courier, a driver, a dispatcher, then I went into flipping houses with a friend of mine. I learned on properties that I owned until I had enough skills to go independent. Now I do property maintenance at a community housing building.

Trevor: Did fatherhood affect your music?

Bill: Fatherhood enabled me to sit with my guitar and write more songs; it kept me home. If the phone rang from wherever, I didn’t really care because I was happy raising my kids.

Trevor: What are you listening to?

Bill: Rogue’s Gallerya compilation of sea chanteys and pirate songs, and I picked up the new Bowie; it’s a little noisy in parts, but I like the first single.

Bill plays Graffiti’s the third Friday of every month.

Never Mind The Musicians: Toronto’s R. Shelley

shelley

From the Toronto Review of Books

In this series, Trevor Abes sits down with local lights in the Toronto music scene.

Michelle Ronchin is R. Shelley, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter whose Sink or Swim EP dropped last April. She has over five years of live performing under her belt, including a set at Hamilton’s Spring Music Festival 2012. When she isn’t writing or booking gigs, Shelley is booking bands at Oak Recording Studio where she works under industry veteran Damon de Szegheo.

T: When did music enter your life?

S: I taught myself how to play guitar in grade 10; all the boys played, so I thought I could too. I started playing piano and writing poetry many years before that.

T: Why do you make music?

S: For me, I put emotion into a song and that’s where it stays. It’s still a part of me, but it’s a song, removed from me to be presented to an audience. So I love when people relate to my songs, say they like this or that verse and there’s an emotional connection, because then I’m grounded, I’m solid.

T: How do you foster those connections?

S: It’s easy to say “I…I…I…” and sing songs about your sadness and how everything bad happens to you, but people don’t want to hear that. If you say “you,” they hear it about somebody else, and they’re included in the picture.

T: What’s the scene like in Toronto for up-and-coming musicians?

S: It’s tough. In Toronto everyone’s serious about hitting it big. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly; they’re passionate over just having fun.

T: How do you work on your craft?

S: I cross-examine myself about how I feel about a gig, how people reacted, and the energy in the room. If people tell me I did great, but I believe I did mediocre, I’ll think about what I think the most.

T: “Running” is my favorite track off Sink or Swim. Where did it come from?

S: A friend of mine in film school at York asked me to write a song for a documentary she was doing to understand her family’s past through pictures. She told me only that the theme was home. “Running” is my interpretation of home as being at your most comfortable, and it could be anywhere.

T: Who’s on your playlist right now?

S: Right now I’m listening to a lot of Sam Roberts and Serena Ryder. Then there’s the older stuff, your Beatles, The Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. It’s a whole range of things.

T: Why R. Shelley?

S: Shelley is my nickname since high school and Ronchin is my last name. Imagine you’re filling out a form online; your last name comes first, and you don’t want to give your whole identity away.

T: Do you feel ready to make yourself at home wherever you may be?

S: Definitely. I put everything into music, so I hope to get the best out of it.

Visit her here.

 

The Band Has Gears: Atom and the Volumes – EP


Atom and the VolumesToronto’s Atom and the Volumes’ self-titled EP comes across as built around the idea that the best music feels just like closing your eyes and dancing. The band could be the spawn of Wilco and Failure, a cocktail of raw emotion, storytelling and unexpected flourishes.

“Pointed Pins” is a brooding garage anthem topped with 80’s glam metal flare. The fuzzy, whirling guitars lend the pop-sensible chorus an edge like bacon on maple. “Lick Your Tears,” about a corroding relationship, has the slowest tempo on the album and is at least twice as angsty; the short wah-wah riff that reappears throughout the song evolves into a  comment on the dangers of repression. The playing thickens at about the two and a half minute mark, becoming stronger than the sum of its parts, and you’re liable to be blanketed in sound.

“Boardwalk,” sultry and distant, floats along on an almost country-western twang from both strings and singer. Any Toronto flâneurs looking for a soundtrack best have a listen.

“To The Beat” typifies something to look forward to on future Atom and The Volumes releases: the band has gears. Mellow groove can morph into full-on jam session at the hiss of a cymbal. 

The outro’s called “Ultimate Power Question” and its suggestion about what fuels human progress and creativity will have you paying close attention to your hips.

Get the full scoop here: Atom + the Volumes.

 

Ashley St. Pierre – Star Spinning: A Review

Ashley St. Pierre

The wandering, searching trumpets that start off “A Momentary Lapse” lead us to St. Pierre’s poised and elegant soprano.  She sings and we notice two things:

1) The song’s lyrics are too iambic to be a fluke, meaning we’re dealing with an artist versed in rhythm.

2) She stops singing at 1 minute 20 seconds to make way for a round of solos, and starts singing again only at 6 minutes 50 seconds. Louis Armstrong would never show off less on purpose, so why would St. Pierre disappear on the album’s first song? She disappears because “A Momentary Lapse” doesn’t need more lyrics, meaning we’re dealing with an artist for whom the music is top priority. The song is a knockout opener for a contemporary jazz album for its neat arrangement and complete lack of weirdness. It could serve as a sonorous definition of jazz in your favorite encyclopedia.

On The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” St. Pierre’s nuances are like patterns on a Rothko, assured, unpredictable, and free of self-consciousness, an airy dream that ends too soon as dreams tend to. And that goes doubly so for her seamless scatting (i.e. vocal soloing) display at the end.  St. Pierre utilizes her voice as an instrument and is able to incorporate it into the playing; rather than singing over background music, everyone’s in more or less the same relief.

(It’s at this point, four songs in, that I wonder why the title, Star Spinning? Stars are of course already spinning.

The title could be a cheeky way of expressing the rotation of the Earth.

A star may be spinning now, but it won’t be later when it turns into a black hole: Is the title then a commentary on youth’s fickle romanticism and the irrevocability of death? Decide for yourselves.)

The guitar solo on “Afro Blue” begins with a dare and descends into a joyous, frenetic jig that distills time and emphasizes texture. It’s the album’s freest, most purely improvisational moment. The finest is the trumpet solo on “Jorea;” it’s so regal it’s probably purple for synesthetes; the mariachi universe within which the player operates is as bad ass as your favorite television ranger and offers a short window into what Sketches of Spain might sound like if it was recorded in the 21st century.

There’s something refined about the kind of jazz this band creates. From the tender and cinematic “You’re Not Here,” to the yearning, unreserved “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” the players, including St. Pierre, sound live. They sound like they’re putting on a performance and we’re being presented with a show, something rehearsed, not engineered; a good thing if you enjoy vulnerability on your iPod.

Have a listen here: Ashley St. Pierre.

Buy it here: Star Spinning.

Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors: A Review

Big Boi Vicious Lies and Dangerous RumoursA benefit of being an O.G. is that you can expand your musical horizons without fear of losing credibility. Fans are going to be willing to give your change in direction a chance and listen with an open mind, while artists in your preferred genre won’t be so quick to deride your non-traditional leap.

Antwan André Patton, A.K.A. Big Boi, A.K.A. Daddy Fat Sax, is not pained by the anxiety of influence. On his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors  he enlists a pair of acts more used to weaving computerized dreamscapes than serving as the backdrop for someone’s rhymes.

The first, indie psych pop duo Phantogram, prevents “Objectum Sexuality” from devolving into a futile ladies’ jam by crafting a self-reflexive hook (It’s all you want these days cause you feel nothing inside / You know there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve been wondering why) that works in opposition to Patton’s explicit confessions. The duo also produced the track, opting for a multilayered, synthesized approach that stays as true to the funk of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as it does to personalizing Southern Hip Hop, a subgenre known for its posing and the at times numbing similarity of its beats and lyrics.

Little-DragonThe second, Swedish electro quartet Little Dragon, feature on “Descending” and “Thom Pettie,” a dirty ditty produced by long-time Outkast collaborator and Grammy-winning producer Chris Carmouche (Album of the Year, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004). Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s short and sweet contribution lends a gospel edge to this otherwise formulaic flossing platform.

Compared to “Pettie,” the regurgitated “In The A” feels conservative and out of place because Vicious isn’t about going hard (definition number 3), it’s about looking inward. Despite T.I. and Luda’s strong cameos, the track falls flat for not eschewing the braggadocio and bombastic production that is their comfort zone, even though Patton and his cohorts have earned the right to let their guards down whenever they please. Luckily, deviations from Vicious’ meditative, unrushed aesthetic (including “Mama Told Me”) are both minimal and forgettable; and forgivable as well, as we’ll see later on.

Phantogram“CPU,” featuring Phantogram, is a love song whose chimes and buzzy synths dial in on a vulnerable sense of longing born from always being on the road. It starts out like a hipster 80’s reimagining, one that’ll reach out and tap your feet til they learn what’s good for them; then, it morphs into an expression of weakness (against black stereotypes), the purest I’ve ever heard from Patton, whether alongside his virtual brother, André Benjamin, or not. A question “CPU” leaves us with is whether, after however long, we are able to differentiate between a loved one and his or her internet trail.

Phantogram equals Patton’s lyrical depth through straight hook mastery. On “Lines,” Sarah Barthel wails “I’ve wondered how / I’m happier when I lose what I’ve needed all my life,” successfully daring to make an important point about the value of indecision, of letting go of what was once thought as the nearest path to becoming somebody in hip-hop: It may seem like a small achievement, but Barthel is talking about losing interest in material things, and so is Patton. When the princess cut diamonds, fur coats and Escalades no longer matter, he says, one’s mind spends all its energy on identifying “the dangers in the circle of angels,” a circle the battle-worn rapper now frequents with caution, having once thought, like many newcomers to the game, that it contained friends loyal beyond questioning.

I’m not exactly displeased about the “contractual obligations” that prevented André Benjamin, A.K.A. André 3000, from appearing on this album. Let’s face it, if Benjamin is the strange half of Outkast that drops the commendable “Prototype” as a single, Patton is the time-honored half happy to excel within hip-hop’s established parameters: After Benjamin’s “Hey Ya!,” his “The Way You Move” was the second song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in ‘04 (and both songs can take some credit for all the number one’s on that chart until the end of the year coming from African-American artists); its accessibility and elaborateness surpass your average spitta’s crossover club anthem, but it’s still a club anthem, doomed to not have survived in the public consciousness a mere eight years since dropping.

However, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors feels immune to such a fate. The principle that informs it, broader than genre or an experienced ear, is a willingness to collaborate with an indie music scene Outkast never really had to find a place in after signing with LaFace as teenagers in ’92. And such a collaboration required of Patton that he make room for sharing his personal imperfections, which only became more arresting themes once conveyed through uneven, remarkably concrete, form-mimics-content song structures: this is why any review that faults Vicious for lack of cohesion fails to understand that the album sounds like the cautious self-actualization that pervades it.

In a way, Big Boi is a new artist, risking emotional openness for the first time, hoping for a response that’ll have little to do with platinum certifications or his decorated professional past.

Listen to: “Descending,” “Tremendous Damage” and  “C.P.U.

Toronto Trio Heater Girl Releases Debut Album

Heater Girl’s first L.P., Nouveau, is a punk/indie pop adventure hosted by two poets, Darren Hutz and Aaron Florendo, with Stewart Byfield’s joyous ruckus on drums (particularly on “The Archfiend’s Haven”).

Hutz starts things off with “The Love I Was Waiting For,” an enlightening and side-splitting song about what concupiscence can do to one’s worldview. His delivery is clear, tragicomic, and Johnny Cash rich as he declares, “I found my Holy Grail, rubbernecking and chasing tail/ And there’re a few fine arts that I’m mastering/ Grab-assing and finger-blasting in the women’s bathroom.”

Then, a shift in diction. As if in response to Hutz’s libido-driven aspirations, Florendo takes the mic on the heart wrenching “What’s So God Damned Scary About Being Loved For The Rest Of Your Life,” a grungy look at losing his band-mate’s tardy ideal without expecting it.

The two vocalists operate on different wavelengths that intersect and maintain their essential features. Florendo’s verses, constrained by form, offer confessional narratives metaphorically bent, and his raspy tone has a tendency to transpose harmonies, tying them together much like a trombone in a brass band. Meanwhile, Hutz’s preference for explosive riffs and earnest aggression guards an emotional depth his intonations are quick to imply; it’s depth, or the feeling of being young and ahead on mistakes, that runs through Nouveau’s 10 song set.

On “The Archfiend’s Haven” (which opens like an R-rated version of The Lion King), Florendo is poised and contemplative. Over a pointillist battlefield dotted with drumsticks, he describes how “the illusion of endless joy” (as of today a pretty multifaceted commodity) is best applied to someone you can argue with. On “Sleep Is For The Weak,” Hutz argues with himself; whether he wins or not depends more on how he sounds than what he says.

Turning to clairvoyance for a moment, I foresee that some people might call the album disjointed and conclude that what we’re really listening to is a collaboration between two solo artists and a bad ass drummer. Maybe we are. The same people might raise a similar point about Lou Reed and Metallica’s recent effort, Lulu; and while Nouveau isn’t nearly as abstract, the avant-garde is definitely a core value by number of tackled genres alone: punk, pop, rock, grunge, country, indie and an acoustic ballad all find their places on the polycarbonate. Disjointed or not, the album’s alternating structure allows Florendo and Hutz (a great name for a cop drama) to 1) show off their personalities, and 2) embody Wilde’s gem of a notion that you have to be yourself, because everyone else is taken.

Nouveau is available on Itunes and Amazon.

For a lengthy and detailed history of Heater Girl, penned by Florendo himself, please visit www.heatergirl.com

Here they are performing “Aches and Pains,” a fan favorite.

Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE: A Review

Frank Ocean, r&b singer and member of Odd Future, released channel ORANGE, his debut album, on July 10, 2012.

The first single, “Thinkin’ Bout You,” tackles the inherent fickleness of relationships. It’s what Maxwell would sound like without his tacky approach to romanticism.

On “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean shows how deep his pop roots go by offering a track that develops a predetermined subject (same goes for “Forrest Gump”); this method of song-writing is akin to poetry, in that the artist limits his subjective scope like a ballad or Shakespearean sonnet form limits verse; he cannot fill up time by spitting loosely associated mental wanderings without veering off topic. It is by focusing on this class of kids, and the substantial repercussions their money brings to the table, that Ocean and a haunting Earl Sweatshirt force themselves to and succeed at tailoring their skills to an existing semantic mould to produce an example of Darwinian hip-hop adaptation.

Around the 3:50 mark on “Pyramids,” Ocean turns up the Scissor Sisters and lets it be known that he can get down too; his overreliance on repetition to sustain this nine-minutes-plus mammoth is quickly evident, and can be forgiven on nerd credentials, namely the use of Cleopatra/Ancient Egypt as an allegorical device that doubles as a framing device for the story of a lover turned prostitute. Brilliant.

The album is full of prospective moments of brilliance: “Fertilizer” could easily be extended into a full song riding on its unexpected blend of bawdy and Motown. The memorable “Bad Religion” seeps  tangentially into politics with the refrain, “If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion,” and is backed up by Ocean’s agony-ridden high-register harmonies  His relaxed and sombre delivery on “Pilot Jones” matches emotion with context, aiding listeners in occupying the space of an addicted dope dealer, in feeling her isolation; this is the difference between Ocean and someone like Chris Brown or Ne-yo: Ocean’s minimalistic production values and narrative-driven lyrics are not aimed at tween masses but at everyone old enough to find joy through the expression of personal pain: in this way, channel ORANGE dishes out as much blues as old-school soul rhythm.

Miles Duke’s Zone Out (EP): A Review

There’s a new rapper on the scene, and he’s got an English degree.

On June 19, 2012, Miles Duke released Zone Out, his first EP, available for free download on Media Fire here . And ‘personal’ is the word from the first lyrics spat. From his eating habits, to his taste in women, to his sometimes manic delivery in search of a solid meaning for life itself, Duke’s heart beats out his chest in every song with freshness and vulnerability. Yet, what’s most personal about Zone Out is the raw clearness of Duke’s thought-process. Here’s an analogy: “Pop Champagne” provides virtually no insight into Jim Jones the person; the song wasn’t made to get to know him, but to feel a little hood while admiring how well he’s done for himself. Conversely, Duke’s approach to song-writing takes having nothing to prove as its starting point.

You’re not supposed to know that Ghostface Killah’s real name is Dennis Coles for a reason. It contrasts with Wu-Tang’s image. So, in the absence of an image, Duke takes to making his own one tune at a time.

His lyrics are surrealist, stream of consciousness poetry that reward in proportion to the attention you put in. It becomes clear after a few minutes that, as listeners, we are meant to follow Duke’s thought process much like we are the protagonists of David Foster Wallace stories: we are asked to be entertained by the act of communing. The opening track, “Inspiration,” begins with atmospheric synths with vocal harmonies on top; Duke promises a “positive space ” with “dollops of taste,” thus setting the album up as an aesthetic affair, a Nabokovian series of explorations of how rhythm and poetry can affect the senses.

“Now” is an energetic, head-banging piece that contains an important meta moment for the album as a whole: the line, “my cadence is far from basic,” coupled with Duke’s proclamation of his “mission with diction,” forms a mission statement that is for diction as well. Specifically, for a change in mainstream hip-hop’s underestimation of the power of words to affect people’s behavior. Zone Out is composed of fragmented, semantically saturated confessions that demand listener participation rather than passive consumption; it is largely brand-name-free.

If a sliver of meaning is unlocked, or if a petal of beauty successfully crosses Duke’s cerebral bone barrier into yours, his purpose of reaching you with his soul rather than with guns and girls is validated.

Beginning from the two-minute mark, the tittle track contains the most memorable bars of the album. As soon as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is name-dropped, the rapper is clearly sparked by it, unleashing deconstructed stanzas with complete confidence in himself (as well as the rare mid-bar pause). The absence of choruses, a hallmark of underground hip-hop, affords Duke this explosive freedom and, when coupled with the pop-crossover beats that take up most of the album, reveals his mainstream influences under the veil of a challenge: to determine whether there would ever be a context in which what we’re hearing is a hit song. If not, why?

Check out the Zone Out album cover.

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