Why music journalism still matters in 2019

June 7, 2019

“They’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends.”

 

 

You may remember these as words of advice given by Lester Bangs to young, aspiring rock critic William Miller in Almost Famous as caution not to get too close to rock stars, and it stands in 2019 as a very literal (perhaps excessively so) description of the modern dynamic between music journalists and artists – especially in our social media-driven landscape, where the gap between the two is much closer than in decades past.

The list of artists firing back at critics online is an extensive one within this decade alone – Ariana GrandeNicki Minaj, of Montreal’s Kevin BarnesCHVRCHESIce-T, and the Naked and Famous are but a few examples. In particular, Barnes wrote a hilariously scathing annotated rebuttal on his former Tumblr account to Pitchfork’s review of of Montreal’s 2010 album False Priest, even though its score was a decent 6.7/10.

However, a since-deleted tweet in late April from fast-rising rapper/singer Lizzo set off a whole new debate as to the very purpose of music criticism.

Lizzo’s tweet in question was in response to Pitchfork’s review of her major label debut album, Cuz I Love You, in which writer Rawiya Kameir described the album as being “burdened with overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping,” and that the music “can feel like a means to a greater end.”

Though it’s fairly easy to see why Lizzo would be upset by parts of the review – comparisons made by the writer between her and Meghan Trainor, Natasha Bedingfield and the Black Eyed Peas are reductive for an artist of her talent level, regardless of context – the review’s score was ultimately a 6.5/10; a slightly underwhelming critique in a sea of otherwise extremely positive ones for her LP.

A rapper, singer, and flautist, Lizzo is an undeniable talent that has already played Coachella, performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and worked with the late Prince in 2014, and it’s entirely possible she was disappointed the review came from a publication known for helping some newer artists’ steadily burgeoning careers sink or swim based partially on their review scores – or perhaps she mainly took issue with the tone of the review itself. However, to suggest that music journalists should be slumming it out in the streets on the sheer basis of them analyzing music in written words without creating or making music themselves is a narrow-minded – and at best, outdated – argument. That said, it also begs the question: “What is the role of the music journalist in 2019?”

Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner admits he’s experienced his share of direct responses from both artists (Cher, Eddie Van Halen, Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson) and fans (Guns ’N’ Roses, Yanni, Neil Young) over reviews he’s written. Though he tries to “put [himself] in the head” of music fans as well as through being someone who plays music and understands music theory, he doesn’t care about the music critic vs. actual musician argument.

“I would’ve loved to be a musician for a living, but my love of music led in me in this direction. I still like playing music, but it was never going to be a career,” he says. “I have friends who have never touched a drum kit or a guitar in their lives, but they’re just so deep into [it] – it’s a whole other level of nerdy. People who don’t even want to go to shows, right? They just want to stay [home] with their records. Everybody’s got their own approach to it. As long as you’re honest about it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Rock publications, or at least the ones many of us grew up with, are gradually dying out: once-iconic magazines like NME and SPIN have ceased publishing their print editions and pivoted mainly to online content, while Pitchfork’s own print edition, The Pitchfork Review, folded in 2016. In particular, NME’s average weekly circulation during the second half of 2014 was only about 14,000 before being made into a free magazine the following year. While Rolling Stone remains by far the most heavily circulated music magazine in the United States as of 2017 (at just under 1.5 million), the next-highest music publication on the list is Music Alive! – an educational music magazine for schoolchildren – with a circulation of only 500,000, while longtime emo/pop punk magazine Alternative Press ranks third with just under 300,000.

Even for well-known critics who do happen to be practitioners of the very art forms they’re critiquing, they don’t necessarily find much success in their moonlighting. Though Roger Ebert dabbled in screenwriting, Lester Bangs himself was an occasional musician, and popular modern-day YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano – known for his YouTube channel theneedledrop – plays bass and produces instrumental hip hop as his moustachioed alter ego Cal Chuchesta, all three remain far more known for analyzing their respective art forms as opposed to actively making art themselves.

Not only are the critics who also happen to dabble in their chosen art form better known for critiquing the art than contributing to it, being a musician arguably isn’t a prerequisite the way having a critical and analytical mindset when it comes to music is. Take, for example, Montreal-based freelance music journalist Erik Leijon, who admits he “can’t carry a tune,” and got much of his music education from listening to music around the house growing up, as well as watching MuchMusic and its recently-deceased French-language sister station MusiquePlus – crediting the latter’s show “Le cimetière des CD” as being where he learned a lot about review writing. As far as artists responding to critics is concerned, he welcomes the dialogue resulting from music reviews, and invites criticism for his own work.

“I’m not somebody who holds the position of ‘critic’ as some sanctified, deified thing,” says the Montreal Gazette and Cult MTL writer. “If you’re going to criticize an artist, you’ve got to be willing to take it back. I think the worst thing either side could do is invalidate the other’s opinion, or say ‘You can’t say this,’ or ‘You can’t say that.’”

While writing about music may not often be a particularly lucrative endeavour, some music critics have found success doing album reviews, video essays, and other music-related video content on YouTube – channels like ARTVDead End Hip HopPolyphonic and Middle 8 being among the more prominent examples. However, the most famous one is arguably Fantano, who has close to 2 million subscribers on theneedledrop, and with viewers having spent an impressive average of four minutes per video with his content as of 2016. Though there are exceptions to the rule, blogs and websites don’t seem to command the same sort of attention from music fans they used to, at least not compared to audiovisual formats. In other words, it’s entirely possible music critics and publications may have to increasingly shift their focus toward video content to publish their reviews.

Vancouver-based musician Jody Glenham has been on both sides of the coin: not only does she have a career as a musician in addition to working three jobs, she has contributed album reviews to Western Canadian monthly publication BeatRoute. In her view, while being able to create music is an asset for review-writing, it’s not a requirement compared to “good taste and a valid opinion.” However, Glenham also isn’t sure there are many who still enjoy discovering artists through publications and word-of-mouth.

“People are busy in their everyday lives,” she says. “For example, Pitchfork in its heyday was how everyone found out about their new music. Now, there’s Spotify and Apple Music curating playlists – it’s kind of like there have been more gatekeepers of how people are finding out about new bands and new artists. [But] I think music journalism is still an important aspect of it.”

Furthermore, with Spotify and Apple Music seemingly dominating modern music consumption from the consumer’s perspective (100 million and 50 million paid subscribers worldwide, respectively), there is no longer much of a desire to essentially be force fed new music via radio or MTV (or MuchMusic, for all you Canucks out there). A whole, wide open world of music is available at our fingertips, and music journalists can provide well thought-out essays on music to help make sifting through the literal and figurative noise easier for readers – though the listener’s opinion of the music itself is ultimately up to them, as music is a highly subjective and visceral art form.

Though there’s been some great online music journalism published in recent years, it nonetheless appears to have lost some of its influence since the aughts – the aforementioned Pitchfork has been credited for helping to break artists like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Broken Social Scene and Sufjan Stevens, while blogs like Brooklyn VeganThe Hype Machine, and Gorilla vs. Bear were also acting as popular sources for music discovery during that decade. However, YouTube and streaming services – particularly Spotify playlists – continue to dominate the landscape for music consumption and discovery – and in Leijon’s opinion, it takes away from the music writer’s work being seen by potential readers.

“If you trust a writer, you’re not even going to the website anymore. You’re just following them on social media, and they’re giving it all away for free. You’re not even clicking on the website anymore, which is that writer’s meal ticket,” he says. “I don’t blame anybody for doing that – there’s so much out there. It’s so easy to go on your Twitter, or Facebook feed, and watch all the opinions roll in. That’s all our brains have time to absorb, so that’s a perfect place to do it. Music websites and blogs are competing with that.”

Despite the gloomy-looking present and future of online music journalism, there’s reason to believe it still has its place in today’s musical climate, even if the way we engage with it has evolved just as the technological landscape has. In Rayner’s case, he began life at the Star while there were critics onboard for books, dance, jazz music and classical music, whereas nowadays there remains only him and a movie critic at the newspaper. Regardless, he still sees value in music journalism itself.

“Back in the day, you had a regular voice, the same person you could engage with every day, and there were only so many,” he says. “It’s someone you could use as a pivot for your own opinions. Like ‘This guy never likes horror movies, I like horror movies. I know I’m gonna like the new Pet Sematary.’ That’s the value in the multiplicity of voices.”

Words by Dave MacIntyre

Local Natives: Someday is Now

May 22, 2019

After nearly 15 years, four albums and a long-sealed reputation as indie darlings, most bands might not necessarily feel the need to challenge themselves, but Local Natives aren’t most bands.

The L.A. five-piece’s fourth album Violet Street is a cohesive and jaunty addition to their catalogue, making for a sound Pitchfork described as being “more personal and timeless” than its predecessor, 2016’s comparatively modern-sounding Sunlit Youth. The LP explores themes of anxiety with regards to life and love (vocalist/guitarist Taylor Rice got married a year ago), and has been rolled out with lead single “When Am I Gonna Lose You?”, which features a music video starring actress Kate Mara.

Even for a career that has seen them consistently release solid albums for the past decade, the band remain keen to push personal boundaries both musically and in terms of their creative approach, working entirely with renowned producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Vampire Weekend, Weezer, the War on Drugs) on the new album, whom they’d previously only spent a couple weeks working with while making their previous LP. Hot on the heels of their North American tour in promotion of the record, Rice spoke to Northern Transmissions on the phone ahead of the band’s first of two nights in Seattle, and discussed the making of the album, working with Everett, and several of the late night adventures they had in the process.

Northern Transmissions: What do you make of how people are receiving the new album so far in general, not just based on the first show of the tour last night in Vancouver?

Taylor Rice: I think it is still unfolding. I think this is an album that I’ve just been totally excited to share with our fans and with people. We really had the best time making it with Shawn Everett, who’s the producer. I think there’s so much in this album – [it’s] the first time that we have a shorter album. We worked really hard to edit ourselves and cut things down, and I think it is the first time we’ve been able to do that, and have this really cohesive thing. I’ve just been so excited for people to hear it. It is too early even for me to be able to know [how people are receiving it], but you start to see people say “Oh, I love ‘Someday Now,’” in the middle of the record. It’s kind of chill and it’s got this Marvin Gaye vibe. A lot of people are talking about that one. “Shy” is one of my favourite songs. It has this super insane freakout in the song, and I’m so excited to play that live. People are also talking about that song. It’s just fun. I know these songs
so well, and you get to watch as people discover them, which is fun to watch.

NT: What’s the biggest way in which you guys challenged yourselves while making this record, in comparison to your 2016 album Sunlit Youth?

TR: The biggest way we challenged ourselves was to really trust in each other and being a band in the studio. What I mean by that is that every previous Local Natives album has been very meticulously crafted. It’s something that we would do over the course of a year. We would really meticulously craft the songs, and then go into the studio and make them. With this album, we wanted to try something different, and it was to say, “This is our fourth record as a band. We’ve been playing together for over 10 years – some of us for 16 years – and we know each other so well. Let’s capture the spirit of what it’s like for us to play off of each other live, in that very genuine, band-in-a-room, five-musicians-feeling-each-other way.” That was really scary. Normally you go into a studio, and for us, we want to know what we’re doing. This was a bit of a leap for us to do that, and it was just the most amazing experience. I really have to give credit to our producer Shawn Everett, who made every single day this insane rollercoaster of an adventure of “Okay, we have an idea for a song – how are we going to get there?” It would take so many twists and turns that we didn’t see. We had to have a lot of faith in that process to make this record.

NT: You worked with Shawn Everett for a couple weeks for your previous album. This time, he was behind the production, mixing and engineering of this album. What was the dynamic like now that you had a lot more time to spend working with him?

TR: We just went all in. We just pushed all our chips in on Shawn. I’m so glad we did, it was really amazing. I really feel like he’s a genius. The dynamic was just so great. Shawn has a way of approaching music, of the whole production. There are no problems in the studio, there are only a thousand answers. A lot of times when you’re working on a song, it does feel like a puzzle. “What do we do with this? How do we finish it? What’s the arc of this song? What’s the identity of it?” The process was really cool. We would use things like a painting. It would be like, “Here’s this photograph of this abandoned mall that has vines and trees growing in it – that’s the touchpoint for this song.” Or there would be a [Federico] Fellini film on silent in the background. Just using really different things to help guide the process that would just open you up and be really outside the box. I could talk forever about all the things we did with Shawn… Maybe I’ll just mention one, which, to me, embodied the most what it was like to work with him. He has this microphone that’s shaped like a human head, that’s ultra high-fidelity. It has these two microphones in its ears. It’s so that you can record whatever noise you want, and then you hear it as if you were actually hearing it in a room. He puts this microphone up in the room, and we were all just making this swirling noise until we all were like, “Okay, we’re going to run around it, and scream and bang on drums to make this crazy cacophony sound.” It was 1 a.m., we’re delirious, and we kind of got carried away. We were just going crazy, and then ended up all laughing hysterically in this pile on the floor. We went in and turned that noise into the first background chord that’s on “Vogue,” the first song on the album. It’s the most beautiful sound on the record – this floating, really pretty chord. It was so unexpected. We turned the most cacophonous moment in the studio together into this very gorgeous, beautiful opening for the album. We kept having that type of experience, where unexpected things like that would happen and flip a song on its head.

NT: You’ve said that you’ve “never had so much fun” making a record as you did with Shawn, and that some days were a “wild, unexpected adventure” until 3 am. Was that one of those adventures?

TR: Totally, yes. He’s also a bit of a madman. He really works so much – [his] schedule is pretty crazy. We would go until 3 a.m. all the time, and that was one [story.] There are all kinds of experiments: there’s his tape machine, and we were looping this tape through the middle of the room. We were performing the song on this mixing board – all these things that are kind of impossible to explain. We would barely know how it was working, and then it would all click. It would be like, “Oh, this is how [Talking Heads] made ‘Once in a Lifetime.’” We’re using this production technique, but then doing this very modern thing on top of it. It was so fun. It was hard, too, but it really was such a creative, really fun space. It reminded me of our first record, Gorilla Manor; this time where we all were living in this house together, and we were writing together, making music, and everybody was on top of each other. It was a really effusive, created, bottled energy. It felt like that, in a way.

NT: What’s an example of other 3 a.m. adventures you had with him?

TR: He has this huge warehouse, and we were all set up in the room. We could just play off each other and improvise. We had this song, and we were like, “Okay, we’re just going to jam it.” There’s this app called Radiooooo; this app has a map of the world, and you choose a decade. You click on a country and a decade, so you can go, “Brazil, 1970s,” and it’ll play music that was on the radio in the ‘70s in Brazil. It could be Czech Republic or Russia in the ‘80s – literally any country, any decade – and it [shows you] all this really dope music. We had our song and we chose with Shawn five decades and countries at random. We would listen to whatever song it was for 30 seconds, and then play our song in that style. It would be like, “‘80s, Turkey,” and it would be some weird vibe, like “Okay, cool, everybody play our song in that vibe.” We would jam on that for five minutes and then we’d keep repeating. We’d be like, “Okay, Sweden, 1960s,” and then “Okay, whoa, let’s jam in this vibe.” We had all of this jamming on this song, but in these really crazy styles. We just went in and helped create this song out of it. That was definitely an idea I’d never thought of before, of a way to put a song together.

NT: You’ve said that you guys found inspiration in movies and visual art (ie. paintings) to inform the record’s sound, and you even edited a song to match a film. What films/filmmakers or paintings/painters in particular acted as influences for the album?

TR: There really were a lot – I should probably just write a comprehensive list. We were in there for months and months. I mentioned the photograph of this dead mall, and that was for “Tap Dancer”. That was really a beacon for that song. We kept turning back to this one photograph that we had as the touchstone for it. But often, we’d just be working on a song and we’d choose a movie for that day. Sometimes it wasn’t like, “This song has to be Citizen Kane.” It was like, “Okay, today Citizen Kane is on. Maybe it seeps in subconsciously, or if we hit a point in the day where we’re stuck a little bit, we just let Citizen Kane tell us where to go.” Shawn also had this IFC [Films service where] you could also pick a country and decade for films. It was so cool – all these films and epic filmmakers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’d watch weird shit like El Topo or Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood… There were a couple that made their way into the landscape of the album.

NT: You made the record at an L.A. warehouse, and the big city vibe of Los Angeles is another thing that seems to be a major influence on this record – you even named the song “Megaton Mile” about an L.A. car wash. What is it about L.A. that breeds inspiration for you, versus if you made an album somewhere in the boonies?

TR: For Sunlit Youth, we made that record all over the world. We went to Thailand, Nicaragua – we’d do all these trips outside of the city. It felt really important to be in L.A. properly to make this record. I think it was important in a lot of ways. This dark, ‘70s Fleetwood Mac vibe, that was something we kept thinking about, and wanted to be a guiding light for the record. For us, this city has been home for so long, and it’s a creative hub. The music that we were making, and where we wanted to come from, felt correct to be in Los Angeles. We didn’t want to go into the wilderness or get away, we wanted to be in the city itself. I think throughout all the songs, and even the lyrics, L.A. is definitely a character that informs the album.

NT: You’ve described this album as being the most exciting record you’ve ever made, and that it reminds you of what it was like to make music when you guys first got together. What is it about the album’s sound – or any other aspect of it – that reminds you the most of the beginning of Local Natives?

TR: I would say that has more to do with the creative energy, and the feeling that anything was possible in playing off of each other. I think it was the level of trust that we had together to dive in to something and rely on each other, and lean on each other. We’ve been playing music together a really long time. Especially with Shawn as the producer for this record, and just allowing any idea that we had. He had so many incredible ideas of things I never could have thought of. But if I have an idea, he’s so capable at so quickly making it happen. He was so fun to work with as an engineer. We’d just be like, “Okay, we want to set up two drum kits, and we want the rest of us to be jamming to them in this particular manner.” It felt really free in terms of
how we were collaborating with each other.

Words by Dave MacIntyre

“Heard It in a Past Life” – Maggie Rogers

January 12, 2019

‘Heard It in a Past Life’ by Maggie Rogers

They say first impressions are important – you only get to make one. Although this rule doesn’t quite apply to Maggie Rogers, who independently released her first two albums The Echo and Blood Ballet in 2012 and 2014 respectively, her hotly-anticipated major label debut Heard It in a Past Life is poised to not only be the first full body of work many hear from her, but also her commercial breakthrough (though her November performance on SNL has certainly helped speed up the process). On it, the 24-year-old Maryland native wastes little time establishing herself as an artist to watch in 2019; not only giving listeners an LP dabbling confidently in pop and R&B while staying rooted in the folk music she grew up with, but also one full of moments that are infectious, inviting, poignant and self-asserting – sometimes all at once.

Having initially broken through with her 2016 single “Alaska” – one Rogers wrote in 15 minutes and went viral after playing it in front of a gobsmacked Pharrell Williams at a master class he was hosting at her alma mater, NYU – the track, as well as fellow standalone single “On + Off”, both appear on the album in slightly reworked forms, though their inclusion feels somewhat pointless given the time of their release. They hardly disrupt the rest of the LP’s flow, however: peppy album opener “Give a Little” is reminiscent of Rogers’ former tourmates Haim in melody, structure and use of harmonies, though with a noticeably more modern pop sheen. Ensuing tracks “Overnight” and “The Knife” swing and sway with a hip-hop backbone to them; the latter’s use of wind chimes, looped samples and bass slaps particularly showcasing Rogers’ adeptness at style-hopping.

Lyrically, the album largely focuses on themes of love (“If you’re giving up, would you tell me?/I’m gonna keep this love if you let me,” from “Burning”), relationship issues, togetherness, vulnerability (“Oh I could feel the darkness wrapping all its arms in mine/Oh I could feel the world was turning all inside my mind”, from “Past Life”), and the hardships of adjusting to life in the public eye (“Crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out/With everyone around me saying ‘you must be so happy now,’” from “Light On”). Rogers writes and expresses herself honestly, unreservedly, and fully aware of not only where she’s at emotionally and professionally, but where she still has to go – and the motions she goes through along the way.

Single “Light On”, which has begun 2019 at the top of Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart, is warm, intoxicating and jubilant-sounding despite its lyrics detailing feelings of overwhelming anxiety – not to mention fitting like a glove for pop, alternative and adult contemporary radio formats. “Fallingwater” – her collaboration with ex-Vampire Weekend man Rostam Batmanglij – not only emphasizes Rogers’ higher register in ways you’d expect to hear from Florence Welch, but acts as a thoughtful meditation on dealing with significant life changes (a particularly resonant topic given her rapid rise to fame), and the rollercoaster of emotions inevitably following it. “Past Life” is the album’s sombre midway point, with the piano ballad acting in stark contrast to the rest of the project musically, but also serving as an emotionally arresting – and much-needed – palette cleanser. The sonically vibrant “Retrograde” is another standout, with a shimmering guitar riff and an emphatic chorus making the track burst with colour, right before closing the album with the jubilant “Burning” and anthemic ‘80s-inspired ballad “Back in My Body”. Channelling bits and pieces of Fleetwood Mac, Scandinavian electro-pop (Robyn, Sigrid), R&B (Jessie Ware, Charlotte Day Wilson, Jorja Smith – particularly on “Say It” and “The Knife”), folk and indie pop, Rogers makes a convincing argument for mainstream success with an album that could spawn any number of bankable singles, while also not feeling like a jumbled and disorganized collection of them.

If criticisms are to be levelled here, they’re that the song structures here don’t waver much from that of your standard pop song, and the project generally doesn’t cover a great deal of ground experimentally (though that’s probably best saved for future releases). Regardless, Rogers is a genuine talent with a delicate yet dynamic voice, and a knack for emotionally resonant songwriting, and the potential she’s shown since “Alaska” surfaced in 2016 manifests itself nicely onto this LP. While themes of self-discovery, anxiety and insecurity permeate the album, Heard It in a Past Life nonetheless stands as a powerful mission statement, marrying influences from the dance music she embraced while in Europe during a gap year and the folk music of her upbringing with finesse and conviction. Festival darling status beckons.

Words by Dave MacIntyre

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

M for Montreal 2018 Wrap-Up

November 19, 2018

As it does every year, M for Montreal’s 13th edition brought an array of local and international talent to one of North America’s most colourful music cities, with shows and industry keynotes going down over a span of four days. While snow and cold weather gave the festival an unfortunate early winter feel compared to previous years, it hardly slowed things down, as delegates from across the world – and local music fans, of course – converged onto the city’s numerous club venues and concert halls to celebrate once again just how much of a treasure Montreal’s music and arts scene is to this country’s cultural identity. Here’s a recap of the artists Northern Transmissions checked out this past week.

Partner at M For Montreal

Partner at M For Montreal photo by Dave Macintyre

Partner: While this Windsor-via-New Brunswick duo have the slacker vibe down pat both in their lyrical content and aesthetic, Partner make simplistic but fun garage rock-driven tunes with an occasional power pop sheen to them – numbers like “Personal Weekend” and “Everybody Knows” are prime examples. Cracking jokes and playing tongue-in-cheek covers of “Crazy Train” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” midway through their opening night set at Sala Rossa on Wednesday, the duo of Josée Caron (vocals/lead guitar) and Lucy Niles (vocals/rhythm guitar) not only have a solid arsenal of short but sweet songs, but they clearly know how to let loose and have fun. M for Montreal did well to get the self-proclaimed “Lesbian Green Day” as a tone-setter for the festivities to come.

Hubert Lenoir at M For Montreal 2019

Hubert Lenoir at M For Montreal 2019 Photo by Dave Macintyre

Hubert Lenoir: Despite being an absolute nightmare to take photos of due to his extremely dark lighting (the above picture is the best take this writer could get), this fast-rising 24-year-old glam rocker took Sala Rossa by storm Wednesday; jumping, boogying, and shimmying his way across the stage to classic rock and jazz-tinged tunes, with the crowd screaming and bouncing in kind. His arrival on Quebec’s musical landscape has been nothing short of astonishing – his three awards at the Gala de L’ADISQ and shortlist nomination for this year’s Polaris Music Prize only accentuate that – and the crowd sang his songs loudly and enthusiastically from the word go. As far as things you’d want in a rowdy festival-opening show, this one had everything: from wild antics (eg. him running through the crowd to dance on top of the bar); to entertaining stage banter (if you understand Quebec French, that is); to crowd surfing; to a screamed acapella cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, followed by an instrumental one of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In other words, completely bonkers. Not only did Lenoir set the bar high as far as charisma and showmanship at the festival, his set showcased the arrival of a unique, vibrant talent.

Zach Zoya at M For Montreal 2018

Zach Zoya at M For Montreal 2018 photo by Macintyre

Thursday’s hip hop showcase at Club Soda: As M have done in recent years, concurrent showcases across the street from one another at Club Soda and Café Cléopâtre (yes, the strip club) went down once again for the 2018 edition of the festival – and just like last year, Club Soda’s event was focused squarely on local hip hop. The results here, however, were mixed. Franco emcee Rowjayperformed to a receptive crowd with a solid cadence (albeit a French-language twist on the Migos triplet flow) and frequent audience interaction, but primarily over repetitive, run-of-the-mill trap songs. Zach Zoya followed him with mostly English tunes and a simultaneously rap and R&B-focused style, all the while significantly cranking up the energy level of the proceedings. With a fast delivery, bilingual banter and mosh pits being opened up, the 20-year-old native of Rouyn-Noranda puts a confident and charismatic spin on music that’s otherwise very of-the-moment. Fouki, meanwhile, brought things more or less back to what Rowjay started the night off with; jumping between a fast, aggressive flow and a somewhat Post Malone-esque one, delivering a modern trap sound en français with a decent amount of flair and conviction.

Zephyr Bones at M For Montreal 2018

Zephyr Bones at M For Montreal 2018 photo by Dave Macintyre

Thursday’s shows at Café Cléopâtre: On the other side of the coin was Café Cléopâtre, whose upstairs floor hosted an array of indie bands, including the Zephyr Bones; a Spanish-Chilean quartet with shades of post-punk and surf rock to their tunes – think Broncho and other such bands – and an emphasis on bass lines, ‘60s vibes and neat, pristine instrumentation. Saskatchewan’s Beach Body followed them around 11:45 p.m. with a decidedly sleepier and hazier feel to their equally surf-influenced music – and despite a dancing couple at the front getting invited to dance onstage with them, their set was sadly a sparsely-attended one.

Helena Deland at M For Montreal 2018

Helena Deland at M For Montreal 2018 photo by Dave Macintyre

Helena Deland: One of this city’s local talents garnering attention from outside the Montreal echo chamber is Helena Deland, the singer-songwriter who took to a packed Fairmount Theatre on Friday surrounded by tiny fake IKEA candles and a darkly lit, cozy atmosphere – a perfect recipe for her luminous, intricate musical output. Commanding the stage and her material extremely well both by herself and with her backing band, Deland’s poetic songwriting and Hope Sandoval/Cat Power-esque voice were a comfortable fit for the stage setup and the venue itself. Fellow local singer-songwriter Tess Roby also impressed earlier on with her ethereal and cerebral brand of art-pop and a smoky voice, in a set that also gave the crowd a much-needed kick in the ass as she was interrupted mid-song by an organizer who admonished those chit-chatting amongst themselves during her performance. “Thank you for listening, it makes a big difference,” she said after restarting and finishing the song. A little respect goes a long way.

Bodywash at M For Montreal 2018

Bodywash at M For Montreal 2018 photo by Dave Macintyre

Bodywash and Winona Forever: Those who stayed up super late on Friday were treated to an intimate show at L’Esco, first at 1 a.m. with local quintet Bodywash, whose heavy use of synths, guitars, ride cymbals and misty sonic textures fit nicely with both the bill and their time slot. The McGill alumni’s moody yet groove-driven dream pop/shoegaze style – creampop, as they call it – resonated nicely with the largely monochromatic red lighting of the venue and the homey feel of the basement bar venue. Around 2 a.m. came Vancouver-Montreal transplants Winona Forever, whose mildly jazzy and R&B-influenced material – not to mention several time signature changes and general left turns during songs – brought a distinct change of pace to the proceedings. While their music might get slapped with the “slacker rock” tag by some, it’s very groove-driven, and did well to keep the audience engaged by the time their set ended – at 2:40 a.m., no less.

Tanukichan at M For Montreal

Tanukichan at M For Montreal photo by Dave Macintyre

Tanukichan: San Francisco’s Hannah van Loon, best known as Tanukichan, may have seemed like a somewhat unexpected opener for Kero Kero Bonito at Sala Rossa during this year’s festival’s closing night, but unlikely pairings can make surprisingly good bedfellows. Flanked by four bandmates and possessing a soft-sounding coo of a voice, her dreamy, shoegazey style (a bit of a theme at this year’s festival) hopped between drum machine-heavy bedroom pop and noisier, guitar-focused tunes – a somewhat more rock-imbued Sleigh Bells, if you will. Her bandmates may have unfortunately drowned her out most of the time, but van Loon’s set acted as a nice calm before KKB’s storm.

Kero Kero Bonito at M For Montreal 2018

Kero Kero Bonito at M For Montreal 2018 photo by Dave Macintyre

Kero Kero Bonito: When a band jumps into a punk rock intro as members are arriving onstage, chances are you’re in for an exciting show – and this one was that and then some. One of the most enigmatic and intriguing bands to arrive in the last few years, Kero Kero Bonito helped close out this year’s M for Montreal by bringing the Sala Rossa faithful a dose of unbridled joy, quirky and cute songs, and a couple death growls from frontwoman Sarah Midori Perry – not to mention some plush flamingos and alligators to boot. The Japanese-influenced band jump from electropop to rock to noise pop and many places in between, with many songs from throughout their young career – “Flamingo” in particular – commanding huge singalongs from the sold-out crowd. Bringing the members of Tanukichan back onstage during the encore to dance as KKB powered through “Trampoline”, the energy onstage and in the audience was on par with, if not better than, the benchmark Hubert Lenoir set on night one. With a musically and aesthetically diverse identity, as well as a rousing and straight-up fun live show, a bigger venue than Sala Rossa beckons next time they roll through town.

 

Words by Dave MacIntyre

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

“Lover Chanting” Little Dragon

November 7, 2018

Lover Chanting
Little Dragon
Label: Ninja Tune
7.5/10
 

Whether it’s through their own material or someone else’s, Little Dragon have established themselves as one of the most alluring and eclectic acts of this decade. From collaborations with GorillazSBTRKT, Big Boi, DJ Shadow and Kaytranada among others, to critically acclaimed full-lengths running the musical gamut from trip hop to soul to synth-pop and multiple places in between, the Swedish electronic group take influence mainly from the clubs with new EP Lover Chanting – released this time via Ninja Tune; home to Bonobo, Amon Tobin and Machinedrum. Following their somewhat downbeat 2017 effort Season High, they pull a 180 by taking things in a dancier, more exuberant direction this time around, even if the sample size is small.

The EP’s title track and lead single is a bouncy, infectious number with a disco/soul feel, with Yukimi Nagano’s uniquely exquisite voice on the verses – with some Prince-esque harmonies sprinkled in the mix as well – while drummer Erik Bodin takes centre stage on its equally sprightly hook (“Do you wanna be my girl? I wanna be, be your man”). It’s a spirited and extremely groovy single with a distinct, ‘70s/‘80s nightclub vibe, and some cleverly-written lines about dedication to your significant other (“No hurricanes nor the best cocaine will steal my love.”)

Second track “In My House” is an exercise in loungier and more experimental deep house, very in line with the Ninja Tune sound – so much so that it wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bonobo DJ set. While it doesn’t pack the title song’s melodic punch, it still serves its purpose as a wispy, percussion-driven midway point, complete with the sound of rolling waves as the track comes to a close. Things get back to a groovier feel with the third and final new track “Timothy”, with a whistle intro; a memorable hook (“Timothy play your song, ooh, to the break of dawn”); and easygoing, R&B-meets-synth-pop instrumentation serving as its backbone.

While it only consists of three new songs plus a radio edit of the title track tacked onto the end, Lover Chanting still acts as an intriguing taste of Little Dragon’s ability to focus squarely on getting listeners ready to dance rather than jump from one mood and style to the next – a direction they’d do well to expand on with a proper LP, whenever that arrives.

Words by Dave MacIntyre

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

POP Montreal 2018 Live Review

September 29, 2018

Another year of POP Montreal is halfway through, with plenty of great sets – and annoying scheduling conflicts – already having left their mark on this year’s edition of the festival. One of the biggest things about POP is not only in its ability to turn your attention toward acts you may only have a passing familiarity with (as was the case for me this year), but that it covers all end of the musical spectrum – experimental, lo-fi, hip hop, jazz, reggae, etc – and traces of all of those genres and more can be found in the first few days of the influential Montreal festival’s 17th year. Here are some highlights from the first half of POP Montreal 2018.

Oneohtrix Point Never: Playing a headline show also acting as part of this year’s Red Bull Music Festival, Daniel Lopatin and two other musicians took to the stage in front of a packed crowd at the Monument-National, with his meticulous yet highly experimental and ambient soundscapes illuminating the elegant concert hall. The combination of his music, use of samples, and glitchy sound effects with eye-popping 3D visuals – sometimes state of the art, other times deliberately cheesy and outdated – made for an extremely immersive concert experience. Between flashing lights, piercing synths, orchestral arrangements, and Lopatin’s haunting, vocoder-heavy vocals (when he wasn’t performing instrumental tracks, that is), the concert became a meditative and sweeping audiovisual experience that not only fit its environment like a glove, but also blurred the lines nicely between an electronic act and a beautifully-crafted art showcase that ended with a standing ovation – not bad for the last show of their most recent tour.

Clairmont the Second: This feisty Toronto rapper came through the Late Night at the Piccolo Rialto for his final show of 2018, spending most of it spitting his rhymes with a punchy style of delivery over solidly produced beats… and complaining about the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm in spite of it. While the crowd was indeed relatively sparse – he was on around midnight on a Wednesday night – he made the best of it even if people were likely tuckered out and needing to wake up for work the next morning. His bemoaning of the lack of crowd activity took away from the experience a bit, but a fun set nonetheless.

Venus Furs: Despite what their name may imply, this local trio don’t have a strong Velvet Underground feel to their sound. Instead, the band took to the stage at the tiny, intimate L’Esco on Thursday night surrounded by red lighting and what the band themselves describe as “the alternative to psychedelic surf punk.” Frontman/guitarist Paul Kasner’s soft-spoken voice meshed quite well with their energetic, bass line-driven tunes with a slight ‘90s alternative rock edge to it, and was well-received by the crowd in spite of the band’s relatively early 9 p.m. start time.

Caveboy: Having had the opportunity to record music in Ireland, win the Juno Master Class, and have their music featured on Orange is the New Black – as highlighted in our recent interview with their lead vocalist/guitarist Michelle Bensimon – Caveboy are a band who seem poised to keep growing in stature despite not having released a proper debut LP yet. The West Island natives perform with finesse, confidence, and a catalogue of fun, old and new-school inspired indie pop music, with a heavy influence from ‘80s new wave and pop (closing with a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”). They aren’t afraid to let loose on stage, either; with Bensimon and bassist/keyboardist Isabelle Banos banging sticks on drummer Lana Cooney’s kit at one point in their set Thursday at O Patro Vys. With a crowd dancing and bouncing around throughout their show, Caveboy are one of Montreal’s more charismatic live bands, and proved it once again with their fairly brief 30-minute set time breezing by as a result.

Sydanie and JPEGMAFIA: Late on Thursday came one of this year’s festival’s marquee rap shows, headlined at Le Belmont by critically-acclaimed Baltimore noise rapper JPEGMAFIA. Performing just before him was Toronto emcee Sydanie, whose vivacious personality shone through both in her hilarious stage banter and the songs themselves – one of which saw her rhyme forcefully over Flying Lotus’ “Camel”. Even if the crowd was mostly waiting for JPEG to come onstage, Sydanie did her best to whet their appetites with tracks running the gamut from trap to house and electronica.

And then… “PEGGY! PEGGY! PEGGY!” The rambunctious and explosive rapper was a perfect fit for Le Belmont’s dark and somewhat gritty atmosphere, with the crowd going absolutely bonkers for him and his loud and aggressive delivery. His screaming may have overpowered the already frantic and bass-heavy beats themselves, but it worked nicely in his favour, amping fans up with freestyles, compliments toward Canada’s quality of marijuana, and even a brief singalong of Clipse’s “Keys Open Doors” when he found someone’s lost keys onstage. The emcee born Barrington Hendricks wasn’t afraid to throw shade, either, with Kanye West, Donald Trump, and notably Morrissey all drawing his ire – underlined with a rapturous performance of the aptly titled “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies”. If his live shows – and the response he gets from them – are anything to go by, JPEGMAFIA’s stock is sure to only continue to rise.

Badge Époque Ensemble and Bill CallahanThis side-by-side pairing was a tale of two extremes during this sold-out night at the Rialto Theatre. Prior to veteran singer-songwriter Bill Callahan taking the stage, experimental avant-rockers the Badge Époque Ensemble entertained with a percussionist, drummer, guitarist, bassist and flutist performing jazz-tinted instrumental numbers in front of a quiet yet receptive crowd. Their jammy rhythms and progressive song structures would stand in huge contrast to Callahan’s considerably more stripped-down affair that was to come, but it emphasizes how eclectic and wide-ranging POP’s roster of artists can be.

As for Callahan, his set would consist of little more than him and an acoustic guitar while another musician noodles on his, though his penchant for frank story-telling and folky alt-country tunes coupled with his low-pitched, somewhat grumbly voice worked extremely well with the intimate yet expansive Rialto. What I saw of his set was a mature, earnest display of a talented and underrated artist 14 albums deep into his career, with his accompanying guitarist adding a great sense of depth and duality to the performance. With that, however, I had to deal with one of the festival’s harsh realities: scheduling conflicts. Therefore, I ran over to the Fairmount Theatre to catch another major veteran act on this year’s bill. Speaking of which…

The Charlatans UK: Arriving at Fairmount midway through this legendary ‘90s band’s set, The Charlatans – erm, The Charlatans UK, that is – put on a hugely entertaining and groovy show in front of a receptive crowd who shimmied and shook throughout. Rocking a pair of overalls and one hell of a blonde bowl cut, their hypnotically-voiced frontman Tim Burgess sung and swayed his way through old and new material, though the entire set was emblematic of the Britpop and Madchester sounds they’d been known for during their heyday. With major hits back home like “The Only One I Know” and “Then” played alongside more recent cuts like “Come Home Baby” and “Plastic Machinery”, the West Midlands band put on one of this year’s festival’s most sprightly and flat-out fun sets to date.

 

Words by Dave MacIntyre

 

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

Caveboy: A New Touch on Old Sounds (Pop Montreal 2018)

September 25, 2018

This week’s POP Montreal festival has been giving an incredible platform to artists from inside and outside Montreal since 2002, including Arcade Fire, Stars, the Unicorns and countless others. Another local band whose rise has come thanks in part to the festival is Caveboy. Comprised of lead vocalist/guitarist Michelle Bensimon, bassist Isabelle Banos and drummer Lana Cooney, this dreamy, ’70s and ’80s-influenced indie pop trio last played POP in 2016, and have since seen their young career pay serious dividends for them.

Following their 2015 self-titled debut EP (and off the strength of recent singles like “New Touch”, “Landslide” and “Color War”), they’ve made their way onto multiple North American festival bills – playing SXSW, Osheaga, and Canadian Music Week among others. They’ve also won the 2018 Allan Slaight Juno Master Class; had the chance to record at Ireland’s legendary Grouse Lodge Studios (Michael Jackson, R.E.M., Muse) for two weeks last year; played the 2017 Pre-Grammy Celebration of Canadian Excellence in Los Angeles; and have seen their songs used in shows like Orange is the New BlackAwkward, and You’re the Worst.

Northern Transmissions spoke to Bensimon over the phone ahead of the band’s two upcoming shows at POP Montreal (September 27 at O Patro Vys, and September 28 at Casa del Popolo), as well as a POP Symposium on Thursday the 27th where she’ll be moderating a discussion about music licensing and how songs can get onto film and TV. Here, she talks to us about the band’s formation, their history with POP, and their plans for touring and new music going into 2019.

Northern Transmissions: You’re about to play two shows at POP this year; one at O Patro Vys on the 27th, and another at Casa del Popolo the following night. How are you feeling leading up to those shows?

Michelle Bensimon: We’re really excited. It’s going to be interesting, because we’ve been writing for the last little while and getting deep in new music. It’s exciting because I think we’re going to test out a new song that we’ve been working on that we’ve never played. It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase our old music that’s still doing well, and then the new stuff; what people can expect in the next little while.

NT: What can people expect from you guys in the next little while musically?

MB: We’ve been fortunate enough to have been very busy over the last little while. The thing is, when you’re playing shows and running around, you don’t necessarily have time to jump in the studio and write and record. We’ve been spending the last little while going through the music that we’ve written in the last two years, and we’ve been finalizing to prepare to go into the studio before the end of the year. We’re getting our album all together for next year.

NT: I saw you guys play POP Montreal previously in 2016 opening for Let’s Eat Grandma at Bar Le Ritz. How much do you think things have changed for your band in the two years following that show?

MB: Two years! That’s crazy. So much has changed. We love POP Montreal so much. Montreal’s an interesting music scene. It’s fun; there’s just so many bands, and always so many shows, and always so much to do. POP has always given us a chance and an opportunity to meet a lot of really great people. They’ve always had our backs. In the last two years, since doing the Juno Master Class [earlier this year], and then we got to play at the Juno gala dinner this year in Vancouver, so much has changed since then. Having toured across Canada, having met new fans in new cities and then coming back home now, I think it’ll be quite different than two years ago. Maybe less of our family and friends in the audience. *laughs*

NT: How do you think POP Montreal helps both the scene here and the artists who come from it both in the short and long term?

MB: POP is so great at connecting artists with the people that we need to be connected with. We’ve gotten so many awesome opportunities because of our POP shows. Most of our bigger things were because somebody was in the room at our POP show. We met our publishers from a POP speed dating [event] four years ago. It’s been so great for us every year, something interesting always happens. Someone interesting is at a show. That’s the thing – there’s that opportunity for bands who don’t know anyone to actually play for some really high-level people who could make a difference in their career.

NT: POP speed dating?! I didn’t know that was a thing.

MB: It’s awesome! It’s amazing. There’s so many symposiums and so many opportunities to meet the delegates that are coming in. It might seem like, “Oh, do I want to go to that?” But I would suggest to bands to go to those things. Go meet the labels, go talk to the festival bookers, go and do everything you can. Listen to people speak. I’m actually going to be moderating a think panel, talking about music in TV and film, because Caveboy has had a lot of placements in TV and film. That’ll be super fun. I would suggest for people to go check stuff out, because that’s why the delegates are here and POP is so great at connecting the artists.

NT: Where and when is the panel going to be?

MB: It’s on Thursday [September 27] where the POP symposiums are [at the Piccolo Rialto]. It’s from 12 to 3.

NT: Coming from a city like Montreal with such a rich musical history and being such a fertile place for artists to come up through in recent years, do you find that to be a blessing because of how much attention Montreal gets for its artists on a national and international scale? Or is it more of a curse because there’s a relatively crowded pool of artists here?

MB: I think it really works for us in places other than Montreal. We go to Toronto, we go to the States, and I think it works that we’re from Montreal. I think it has an element to it that is quite helpful. There’s a niche here. The style of music we’re doing, I don’t find there’s hundreds and hundreds of bands [here] who are doing this blend of the old and the new – a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s influence meets now. There’s room for all of us, really. I feel like it’s more of a blessing than a curse, for sure.

NT: Your bandmates Isabelle [Banos, bass] and Lana [Cooney, drums] had first met in CEGEP and had already been playing for quite some time before you joined the band as well. How’d you get acquainted with them?

MB: I actually knew Lana when we were kids. We played soccer together at the age of four to seven. I was living in Toronto – I’m born and raised in Montreal, but I was going to school there – and I started dabbling in music. I remember sending Lana a song back when Facebook was public, when everything you posted was a public message. I definitely still have it somewhere. I guess I posted on her wall or something, like “I have this song. I know you’re a really great drummer, and I’d love to send it to you. Maybe you could put drums on it.” She was like, “My friend Isabelle is really into electronic music now.” This was eight years ago. I was coming into town for something, and we jammed together. We just vibed so much. I never moved back to Toronto; I had all my stuff sent back to Montreal, and relocated back home. It was the best decision ever.

NT: Since I’m interviewing you for POP, the three of you have also become mainstays on the festival circuit in Canada in recent years, especially at POP, Canadian Music Week, Osheaga, Hillside in Guelph, and Rifflandia in Victoria among others. What’s the most rewarding part about doing festivals like these?

MB: I love festivals so much, because I feel like most of the time the people who are going are just music lovers. They want to see music, they want to discover new artists. I went to the first Osheaga [in 2006], I went to every single Osheaga… I remember when I went to the first Osheaga, I said, “That’s exactly what I want to do with my life.” It’s because of going to that festival that I realized I really wanted to give this a try and see what I could do with music. I feel like there must be so many other people like me who go to festivals and discover all these new artists and get inspired and just have the most amazing time. Sometimes you’re at the same festivals as the same bands as you’re travelling through the circuit, and that’s super exciting. You get to meet all sorts of people. I love festivals so much, I think they’re so much fun.

NT: You won the recording festival contest which got you a two-week residency at the Grouse Lodge Studios in Ireland. How much did that experience help you in terms of growing as a band and developing your sound?

MB: That was an incredible experience. Just being somewhere completely different and being in  a studio with so much history, we were really able to write and record a bunch of stuff. Actually, some of the stuff we did there will transfer now into this new phase of finishing up the album. It’s really exciting. It’s just another really awesome, cool thing that we’ve gotten to do. It’s a very special studio.

NT: Your music has also been featured on show like Orange is the New Black, Awkward, Killjoys, and You’re the Worst. How much has use of your songs on shows like that helped you as far as exposure goes?

MB: It’s crazy how much. If you think of [shows like] The O.C., I remember I would watch that show, and I would look up every song. They would post online the list of songs that were in every episode. I was just obsessed with music in shows. I discovered so many bands that way. That’s still very much a thing, and there are so many people on YouTube, on Twitter – these TV and movie lovers who’ll get so excited about music when it’s placed right in a show or film. We actually just had our song “Something Like Summer” in the trailer for a new movie called The New Romantic, starring Jessica Barden from The End of the F***ing World, and Camila Mendes and a couple other people from Riverdale. It’s crazy how much that’s already brought us some attention, and that just came out a couple of days ago. We love when our music gets placed. Again, we met our team at POP Montreal four years ago, so it all happened because of POP. It really goes full circle.

NT: There’s been a real fascination with ‘80s-inspired stuff lately in pop culture, and there’s definitely shades of that kind of sound in your music. What is it about music and cultural trends from the Ronald Reagan era that you think is so appealing to people in 2018?

MB: The bright colours. *laughs* I think synthesizers will always be super cool. We’re all still discovering new sounds that we’re using with all this old equipment. We use a lot of analog stuff, and we’re still discovering what those things can do. They create this world that I believe has a lot of emotion, and that’s what people are hooked on. They want to hear the emotion… I have a bit of a deeper tone [in my] singing voice, and I find it very supportive of the vocals and the songs.

NT: You toured a little bit across Canada earlier this year as well, going out west back in March – the first time you’ve done a tour like that. What are some of the biggest things you took out of that experience?

MB: Ontario is very big when you’re driving through – that’s something everyone can know! *laughs* It was really awesome. I’ve never even gone through Canada that way not doing music. It was very special to be able to see a lot of our country and meet all sorts of different people. I really find each province has quite different vibes. I think it was one of those things we wanted to cross off the list. Now that we’ve done it, we’re already excited to do it again and continuing to go back to those cities and see what happens.

NT: Will you be planning on doing it again anytime soon?

MB: Possibly next year. Once we have the album out, we’re going to do a bunch of touring.

 

Words by Dave MacIntyre

 

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

Is Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” the Birth of an Icon?

August 22, 2018

Among today’s biggest rap stars, few are as enigmatic as Travis Scott. Following two much-buzzed about mixtapes, 2013’s Owl Pharaoah and Days Before Rodeo the following year, the 26-year-old Houston rapper has experienced a career paved with peaks and valleys, as he’s garnered high sales figures and a massive following while being criticized just as much for his sound, supposed lack of originality or musical evolution, and for being well-connected relative to his talent. Now riding a tsunami of success off his recently released third album Astroworld, it leaves one to wonder if the artist born Jacques Webster is still the product of savvy networking and occasional stylistic mimicry, or if he’s finally locked down a long-term seat at the table in the upper echelon (pun intended) of modern rap music.

While La Flame’s first proper studio album, 2015’s Rodeo, has since gone platinum in the U.S. and spawned his breakthrough single “Antidote”, critical reaction to the LP was noticeably more polarizing. He’d been described as being “all a façade; an image” by Clash; “elusive and bland” by Now; and “lacking in personality” despite trying to “deliver something Scott is incapable of” by Spin. It also wouldn’t be uncommon to see some hip hop heads accuse Scott of being a “culture vulture” and just another face in a sea of hackneyed, unoriginal trap artists.

In fact, one eyebrow-raising thinkpiece was published by Deadspin in February 2015 called “Travis Scott is Worse than Iggy Azalea”, in which writer Billy Haisley not only compares him to Young Thug rather unfavourably (“Young Thug >>>>>>> Travis Scott, under any criteria imaginable,” he says), but accuses Scott of being a “shameless biter,” claiming he “has stolen whole cloth basically every idea he’s ever expressed on a record.”’

Harsh critiques, no doubt, but it’s not too difficult to see where the writer was coming from: Travis Scott’s style is undeniably derivative in certain ways. Specifically, his work owes a great deal of debt to Kanye West and Kid Cudi, in both his image and musical identity. In fact, it’s likely that Scott’s heavy use of Auto-Tune and focus on singing rather than straight spitting wouldn’t have come together without West’s divisive 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak.

West himself can be credited with giving Travia Scott his break, too: at 20, he signed with Ye’s GOOD Music imprint in late 2012 as a producer, and even appeared on the label’s Cruel Summer compilation prior to signing until Scott later inked a deal with T.I.’s Grand Hustle in April 2013. However, Travis has guideposts from many regions of the musical landscape, having worked with hip hop artists both modern and classic (Kendrick Lamar, Future, André 3000, Juicy J), and even critical darlings like Tame Impala, James Blake and Toro y Moi. Scott has also listed Björk, the Sex Pistols, Little Dragon and Coldplay among his musical influences.

While inconsistent at times, Rodeo is otherwise an assiduously constructed LP full of lyrics – limited as they may be – on drug use, hard parties, and hedonism on top of surreal, trippy soundscapes. His second album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, was similar in tone, and boasted several of La Flame’s biggest hits to date (“Goosebumps”“Pick Up the Phone”“Biebs in the Trap”). However, it was more straightforward in concept than Rodeo, and the album’s stellar production would sometimes outweigh the songs themselves. Despite the criticisms that came Scott’s way (some justified, some not), both albums contained evident flashes of potential waiting to be fully tapped into.

Enter Astroworld: a psychedelic, immaculately produced and brazenly ambitious third LP featuring 17 tracks full of style, substance and sheer massiveness. In many ways, it’s the culmination of the flair for spectacle Scott displayed in spurts on Rodeo. Named after the defunct Six Flags theme park in his native Houston, Scott had been talking about the album before even Birds was released – in an interview with Zane Lowe, he even went so far as to call Birds a “stepping stone” compared to what he wanted to achieve with Astroworld.

His bold vision for the project both musically and artistically has already paid off in spades: after only releasing a trailer for the album less than a week before release, Astroworld went on to top the Billboard charts (where it still sits as of this writing, much to Nicki Minaj’s dismay); was certified gold a week after it dropped; and has a Metacritic score of 84 – the highest of his career to date by a comfortable margin.

The LP is grandiose, made with great attention to detail, and as wild a ride as one you’ll find at an amusement park, getting off to a rollicking start with the wavy trap banger “Stargazing” before switching the beat entirely around the 2:45 mark. Sudden changes in tone are a trope of sorts on this album, as “Sicko Mode” has two beat changes right off the bat before shifting once again in its final third to a mostly Drake-led section that would’ve fit nicely his otherwise bloated Scorpion.

Astroworld’s feature roster is essentially a who’s who of modern music’s biggest and most buzz-worthy names: Drake, Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, 21 Savage, Migos’ Quavo and Takeoff, and “Lucid Dreams” hitmaker Juice WRLD. However, its shining moments come when he joins forces with artists who allow him to step out of his comfort zone a little: through linking up with John Mayer and Thundercat for a strange and spacey interlude (“AstroThunder”), meditations on staying humble alongside Stevie Wonder on harmonica and a gorgeous James Blake outro (“Stop Trying to Be God”), and a foray into muggy psychedelic rock masterminded partly by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker (“Skeletons”). Even by closing the album on a more tranquil note with the ‘90s hip hop-inspired “Coffee Bean”, Scott shows he isn’t afraid to deviate from the status quo musically even if it’s during the album’s closing moments.

While it’s a mixed bag of musical cohorts, their contributions to the project are rarely jarring even if those songs would still hold up without them. Scott’s Rolodex is probably full of phone numbers of artists willing to get on his next project, and it’s remarkable that an artist who’s shot to fame so rapidly has done so with each LP. That said, his guests make up only part of the equation; one that couldn’t be whole without Scott’s perspective and delivery still taking centre stage.

Given his approach to album curation, branding, and his raucous live shows, Scott not only aspires to do things bigger and better than his contemporaries, but focuses just as much on ambience and the experience than the music itself. With such an emphasis placed nowadays on maximizing streaming numbers even if it means a deeply overstuffed album (just ask fans who eagerly awaited the release of Drake’s aforementioned Scorpion and Migos’ Culture II this year), the fact that Scott focuses so much on weaving together an intricate body of work is an all too rare approach at times in today’s musical climate.

There are those who dismiss Scott’s work as hip hop where the beats and aesthetic overshadow (or are, at times, overshadowed by) his thematically repetitive lyrics and Auto-Tuned delivery, and sink or swim based on each track’s guest artists. However, it’s hard to imagine lesser artists from his realm like Lil Pump or Lil Yachty giving the masses an album like Astroworld with the same kind of impact and precision, and it’s equally difficult to envision an artist with the cadence or lyrical styles of Common, Atmosphere, Talib Kweli or even J. Cole meshing well with Scott’s spaced out, layered trap beats.

Regardless of how Scott’s managed to get to the summit of rap’s Mount Everest (being with a Kardashian-Jenner can only help you in terms of reach and exposure), he’s already reaping the rewards: he’s set to embark on an arena tour throughout North America in the fall, and has announced the first edition of his Astroworld Festival in Houston, set for November. Back in March 2017, Scott launched his own imprint, Cactus Jack Records, which should help his influence grow even further if artists on the label get serious traction themselves. Clearly, he’s gone the extra mile versus what a number of his trap contemporaries – some having been in the game longer than him – have accomplished in their careers to date, and his accomplishments are starting to match his ambition.

Having made such a huge artistic statement with Astroworld, are we witnessing an artist who’s set himself up to be here to stay; one who will be in the same league as the Kanyes, Kendricks and Drakes of the world for years to come? Given his penchant for constantly fine-tuning his sound and aesthetic, not to mention his razor-sharp focus on quality control and inclusion of features who fit his vision, it certainly seems that way. Travis Scott has described Astroworldas him “finishing the saga” he began with Rodeo, and if this is his mission statement for his quest to reach the top of the rap world, he’s either within touching distance of that apex or he’s already there. The objective now is to replicate or top his vision with album four, but Scott isn’t one to back down from a challenge.

Words by Dave MacIntyre

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

Hope For Music Festivals: Osheaga 2018 Superlatives

August 7, 2018

Osheaga 2018 proves there is still hope for music festivals

Osheaga 2018 saw some of the music’s biggest and brightest acts descend upon Montreal once again for three straight days’ worth of sellout crowds – more precisely, 45,000 per day. Northern Transmissions was there every step of the way, and bore witness to some great sets, searing heat and humidity, and good vibes all around – even if a couple incidents threatened to put a damper on the festivities. Here are our superlatives for some of the biggest highlights from Osheaga 2018  (and occasional lowlights) of the weekend.

Best set: Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals

Oh boy, where to begin. While Anderson .Paak’s been known to put on one hell of a set over the years, the California singer-rapper-drummer extraordinaire brought serious heat toward the end of an already-scorching day at Osheaga. Injecting a major jolt of funk and energy into the proceedings, he and backing band the Free Nationals played a set full of frequent crowd interaction, mosh pits(!) during cuts like “The Season / Carry Me”, and impeccable musicianship throughout from .Paak and his bandmates – including an extended solo from keyboardist Ron Avant where he talkboxed his way through Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Drake’s hit/meme du jour “In My Feelings”. Nighttime sets at Osheaga rarely get more fun than this one.

Anderson .Paak at Osheaga 2018

Anderson .Paak at Osheaga 2018 Photo by Patrick Beaudry

Best discovery: Tash Sultana

The 23-year-old Aussie has been described as a “one person band”, and that tag is well-earned. Sultana’s laidback, summery tunes fit the vibe of afternoons at Osheaga like a glove – especially with the scorching hot temperatures that Sunday – and their ability to flip flop between reggae, psychedelic and rock sounds seldom felt out of place. The former Melbourne busker also showed off their skills using multiple instruments and vocal techniques, such as beatboxing, pan flute, and even guitar solos – all in addition to their already impressive vocal range. While Sultana hasn’t yet released a proper studio LP (their debut album Flow State is due on the 31st), those on-hand at the Scène de la Montagne witnessed a dynamic and original young talent.

Best stage presence: Florence + the Machine

Like Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine impressed greatly in her first go-round as Osheaga headliner a few years back, and 2018 was no exception. Immediately following a solid, yet sadly under-attended, performance from Ohio indie vets the National, Florence Welch delivered a festival-closing set with boundless energy and a well-oiled machine (no pun intended) of a voice. Her set was one that was expansive, theatrical and evoking a sense of unity between her and the Osheaga faithful. Jumping between tunes spanning her decade-long career thus far, Florence’s set was just as notable – if not more so – for her tendency to flutter, pirouette and twirl her way through her set as she so often does. Running barefoot from one stage to the other with style and grace (and occasionally aggressiveness), Florence would also spend a big chunk of time singing from within the crowd itself and getting them to jump up and down during songs like “Dog Days are Over” – adding a communal feeling to what was already one of the weekend’s strongest sets. Aside from Florence, there were also the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sylvan Esso and Kali Uchis who kept crowds entranced with struts, dance moves, and plenty of finesse, charisma and swagger.

Biggest hero: Travis Scott

Way to make the best out of a bad situation. Not only did the Houston rapper, who released his album Astroworld the same day as his Osheaga headline performance, give a rowdy, fiery (both literally and figuratively) and psychedelic set, but La Flame also knew when and how to react as soon as things started getting out of hand. Upon noticing a fan getting injured during “Way Back”, Travis immediately stopped the song and called for a medic to treat the fan and make sure they were safe. It may have been an interruption to a set that had already been running late due to issues crossing the border (more on that shortly), but good on Travis for responding to the situation appropriately.

Biggest villain: Canadian customs

Those who arrived on time for Travis Scott’s headline set at 9:45 p.m. instead saw a message on the projector saying that there was a delay due to “unforeseen circumstances”, and fans would later see live updates saying that Travis had been held up at customs, then that he was past the Turcot Interchange, and later him finally being on the island ready to perform. The only problem? He wouldn’t come on until right after 11 p.m.; in other words, after the noise curfew. When told to cut his set short after a handful of songs, he’d then rush through hits “Biebs in the Trap”, “Pick Up the Phone”, “Antidote” and “Goosebumps” before leaving. Not only is getting past the border a common headache for American rappers trying to perform in Canada, but this situation means Osheaga themselves are surely subject to fines by the city for letting his set run until around 11:40 – and according to the Montreal Gazette, one fan has already filed a class-action lawsuit against organizer Evenko because of it.

Best visuals: TIE – St. Vincent and ODESZA

St. Vincent wows the crowd at Osheaga 2018

St. Vincent at Osheaga 2018 Photo by Patrick Beaudry

As with just about every edition of Osheaga, there was no shortage of gorgeously-done, and occasionally weird and wacky, backdrops seen over the weekend. Always one to make thought-provoking artistic statements both musically and otherwise, St. Vincent’s set displayed videos ranging from her being punched by an anonymous boxing glove to footage of nuclear bombs, all on top of her and her bandmates’ eccentric sci-fi get-ups. Similarly, ODESZA seem to have put great effort into their visuals during their live shows, including an intro full of space imagery recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar, as well as pink and purple Rorschach tests during “Say My Name” and what looked like early ‘60s TV show footage during a remix of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”. Honourable mention goes to GoldLink’s nostalgia-inducing use of Dragon Ball Z clips during his set as well.

Biggest theme with hip hop shows: Mosh pits

It wasn’t simply Anderson .Paak’s set that saw pits get opened up, but Travis Scott and GoldLink had slam dance circles of their own – each varying in intensity level, but mosh pits nonetheless. Perhaps hip hop and punk rock are closer within the musical family tree than you’d think.

Biggest theme with fashion: Hawaiian shirts

If I had a dollar for every time I saw dudes like the ones in this photo sporting a colourful, loud Aloha shirt, my bank account would be looking pretty damn happy right now.

Photo by Dave Macintyre

 

Worst organizational misstep: The alternate route taken to leave the festival on the Saturday

There’s only one appropriate word to describe this: shitshow. After the crowd leaving Arctic Monkeys on Saturday headed for the exits, they were instead diverted to walking past the Scène de la Vallée, where they had to take a detour for well over an hour all the way onto a bridge on the island to get back to the metro. Some would even start climbing up onto it despite being packed like sardines once we got there. At least there won’t be this problem when Osheaga returns to its previous Parc Jean-Drapeau site, right? Right?

Best political statement: Blondie

Debbie Harry and co showed yet again on Saturday that they’re more than capable of commanding crowds and putting on rousing shows decades after their glory days – a particularly impressive feat given how risky it can be booking older acts for Osheaga’s current, younger demographic (Nick Cave in 2014, anyone?). But perhaps a bigger talking point during the New York legends’ performance was Harry’s black cape, on the back of which read “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET”. While the band played a well-received set full of classic hits – songs like “Call Me” and “The Tide is High” got loud sing-alongs from the crowd and drummer Clem Burke even wore a CBGB shirt as a nod to the band’s roots – Harry’s cape statement is a cutting, and sobering, reminder of the world outside Osheaga’s three-day island of music and escapism.

Words by Dave MacIntyre

Blondie at Osheaga 2018

Blondie at Osheaga 2018 photo by Patrick Beaudry

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.

Sons of an Illustrious Father move beyond Nikola Tesla

May 1, 2018

SONS OF AN ILLUSTRIOUS FATHER MOVE SLOWLY BEYOND NIKOLA TESLA

In these trying times, Sons of an Illustrious Father have the kind of fervent attitude and spirit that modern music can’t have enough of right now. Comprised of singers/multi-instrumentalists Ezra Miller (who you may also recognize through his acting career), Lilah Larson and Josh Aubin, the NYC-based trio make music that is highly political, musically diverse (or as they call it, genre-queer), boundary-pushing and unflinchingly earnest – all in varying doses. We caught up with all three members ahead of the June 1 release of their newest album Deus Sex Machina; or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, where we discussed their songwriting process while jumping between instruments, turning surf punk tunes into eight-minute epics, happy accidents, and tinnitus.

Northern Transmissions: You’ve called your album Deus Sex Machina; or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla. What was the inspiration for the album title being two titles in one, and what does it mean to you with regards to the project itself?

Ezra Miller: It goes like this – what is expressed is something indescribable, something I wouldn’t hesitate to call divine. When we make art, what is expressed is beyond our understanding. How we express it is through the vehicle of our bodies, which is all that we have. In turn, how does it come to light in the world, and how do you hear it?… It’s through the extensions of ourselves that we in turn created. Instruments, first and foremost, then recording sounds – the vast digital network through which things are made, and the phones we’re talking through now. That’s the Deus, the Sex and the Machina of Deus Sex Machina. It’s sort of a meditation on channels and frequencies that pass through those channels, and the master of frequency, of course, Nikola Tesla. [He] was betrayed by the world; it didn’t accept Nikola Tesla’s brilliance and everything that he was trying to be a channel for into our world. We chose this means of generating and channeling energy that’s left humanity now in the most serious pickle.

NT: You’ve described yourselves as starting out as “a band with a process” when making music, where you’d write songs individually before you eventually started writing together more often. With that in mind, how did the songwriting process manifest itself with this new LP?

Josh Aubin: A little bit of both. We still had stems that we brought to each other. We also spent a lot more time in the studio recording together in the beginning phases of this album’s creation. A lot of the songs lent themselves to that simultaneous recording and songwriting process, coming as well from stems of songs that we created individually in different spaces.

EM: This is definitely the first album wherein you find songs where different people wrote different parts of one song. That evolution of being more collaborative, even in the beginning stages of the process, is definitely evidenced in this album.

NT: The three of you each play various instruments, and you all take turns singing lead. How is it decided during your songwriting process who gets to sing and play what on each song? Is it dependent on the individual ideas each of you bring to the equation?

Lilah Larson: Often we’ll conceive of parts for one another. We’ll hear someone singing a certain part on one of the songs that we’re primarily crafting. But also, many times we’ll be in the rehearsal process and something won’t quite be clicking, and we’ll decide to switch instruments and switch parts and see if that feels more right – and often, it does!

EM: For instance, background vocals are something that – almost entirely through our band’s history – have happened spontaneously during the rehearsal process [while] in a mode of exploration, hearing the song and responding to the song.

NT: Ezra, given your career as an actor, not to mention other musical projects from Josh and Lilah, how do you make time to keep the musical fire burning between each of you? Do you put time aside well in advance to jam or have band practice, or do you find yourselves sending files to each other back and forth via email or Dropbox like some bands who can’t always necessarily be together tend to do?

EM: We do it all in person for the most part. Sometimes when we’re mixing, there’ll be a process via email where we’ll look through notes and listen to stuff at that stage. But we really value the familial, physical space that we create with each other, and we definitely dwell in it to make art. There have been a couple times where someone’s sent an idea or a stem of something, but we haven’t ever really found a rhythm outside of physically being in each other’s presence to write music. We really strive to make time in all of our schedules to devote to this project.

NT: The longest track on your new album is Narcissus, which clocks in at almost eight minutes…

LL: Jesus, does it really?

EM: Woo!


NT: It also contains some heavy electronic influences with the drum programming, not to mention a pretty kickass sax solo toward the end. What went into the creation of this song in particular?

LL: (laughs) That song actually perhaps had the most interesting songwriting process. It was originally written years ago as a very straightforward surf punk song. I think we kind of lost interest in it because it was so straightforward. When we were in the studio recording this album, we decided to completely disassemble it and put it back together piece by piece. That started with the drum machine, then the bassline was added, and it was collaged from there.

EM: And the result you have before you is the eight-minute work you’re referring to!

LL: You know, pop music!

EM: There could’ve been a longer version, honestly! I mean, we did a lot of sessions with it that were just long, hypnotic trance sessions, where that drum machine just played for hours. We were all lying on the floor…

JA: Every time we put a track on it, we would just play a little longer.

EM: It’s true (laughs)!

NT: The closing track on this new album, “Samscars”, starts with a spoken word sample of what sounds like a priest introducing the musical portion of a church service. Is that what it is?

LL: That’s actually radio interference coming through my guitar.

EM: That would be the Deus Sex Machina of the Deus Sex Machina. That really happened.

That’s in real time. So it’s not a sample…

LL: It’s the guitar track.

EM: It’s not something we added, it’s on the guitar track. That happened spontaneously. We heard little cracklings and whispers, and then…

LL: And then we all looked at each other and waited for the right moment to begin.

EM: Yeah, and that guy showed up, and announced the sermon… That is a true story.

NT: What led to you deciding to use that sample, and especially for the closing song?

EM: It actually informed everything about all of the other decisions we made for the album, and it partially inspired the name of the album. There was an idea throughout the whole process, I think largely as a result of us being what we often describe as being “unsupervised” through [it.] We made this album unlike our last one, which we made with Montreal’s own beloved, incredible Howard Bilerman. We made this album mostly alone – Lilah engineered most of the album when we laying down all of the basic tracks in London. Oliver Ignatius, who’s an incredible producer and engineer, stepped in later. He’s also our very good friend – he’s like one of us – so we were still in many ways unsupervised. One of the things we’ve always loved so much in the recording process is these glitches, these so-called mistakes or accidents that will show up on a track or that occur, and that can end up being the greatest things you do in a recording process – because, like most art, you don’t do it. That was one of the many on this album that, because we were in this so-called unsupervised space, we were just like, “Yay! Leave it in! No one to stop us!”

NT: The opening track “U.S. Gay” was written about the Orlando Pulse shooting in 2016. Given how you’ve discussed topics like gender, LGBTQ+ issues, and smashing patriarchal norms in other songs, and given how you say this album is a “technological and sociopolitical response” to our current reality, how much hope do you have for the not-too- distant future especially given the times we’re currently living in and the public’s responses to these times?

EM: No hope! Only prayer, determination, willingness, and the similitude of resistance and acceptance.

NT: Now that you’ve become a band that makes what you call “heavy meadow” or “genre- queer” music, what comes to your mind when you think of when you had those loud, punk- inspired jams in Ezra’s parents’ basement back in the day and looking back on that as the band you’ve become now?

EM: Hearing damage. I think about tinnitus. Honest answer (laughs). I wish we’d worn more ear protection back in those times. Kids, wear ear protection!

LL: Protect your ears.

EM: No, it’s undeniably not as punk rock as not wearing ear protection. But you know what’s too punk rock? Having tinnitus.

LL: I often imagine our childhood selves smiling at us from the past, being proud and satisfied. Not complacent, but excited.

EM: Yeah, and sneering, saying “Ha ha, you have tinnitus and I don’t!”

Words by Dave MacIntyre

 

This article originally appeared on Northern Transmissions.