Cults Offer Dose of Feel-Good Music (for Women)

24 10 2011

I’ve been listening to Cults’ self-titled debut album essentially non-stop since my brother recommended it months ago (thanks, Brother!), because it’s so up-tempo and fun that I’m immediately put in a better mood. Cults is a collection of quick female-powered songs that lasts just over a half hour, with all songs clocking in at under four minutes.

Lead singer Madeline Follin has one of those voices made for pop tunes, and when she sings her little heart out, you can’t help but want to sing along. The first track on the album, one of my favourite songs of the year by far, features her band mate Brian Oblivion, and this is one of the only times we get to hear from him. “Abducted” likens falling in love to kidnapping (“I knew right then that I’d been abducted, I knew right then that he would be taking my heart”), and Follin’s strong vocals are badass, but heartfelt at the same time, while Oblivion’s deep counter offers balance to a song that will likely strike a chord with anyone.

The problem with starting your album off with the best track ever is that whatever comes next is ultimately going to be somewhat disappointing. This is the case with “Go Outside,” which isn’t nearly as catchy and is missing the intensity with which the album begins. “You Know What I Mean” is also not as upbeat, but the chorus has a rawness to it that’s extremely compelling. “Most Wanted” and “Walk at Night” are up next, but there’s nothing really note-worthy to say about them, except that they come before two awesome songs, “Never Heal Myself” and “Oh My God,” which prove to me that the songs that are the most up-tempo and have the strongest messages are certainly the best.

“Never Saw the Point” helps me realize why I like Follin’s vocals so much – she’s certainly strong and independent, but her songs have a vulnerability to them that makes them all the more real and easy to relate to. It’s at this point that I also have a strong urge to compare her to the Spice Girls, but I won’t go there (this time). Things wind down with “Bumper,” wherein we’re reintroduced to Oblivion’s vocals, and the back-and-forth with him and Follin works nicely to show both sides of the spectrum: while he’s singing “She’s this crazy now, there’s no telling what’s in store” she’s countering with “Maybe I should start a life with someone new, and give up all my hopes for you.”

I love the lyrics on this entire album, which have been described by others as “teenage sentiment.” If anything, that makes them more accessible and universal, and as a female, I’m totally on board with her calling out all the jerks of the world. Lines like “but I could never heal myself, not for you / But I could never be myself, so fuck you” and “Please don’t tell me you know the plans for my life / I can run away and leave you any time” prove that these are the words of an empowered woman who isn’t afraid to stick up for herself. And, when this sentiment is combined with playful pop music, you’ve definitely got a winning combination.


A High-Schooler’s Best Friend

18 10 2011

We all have our own unique musical tastes, oftentimes laden with so-called guilty pleasures, which we either unabashedly fess up to, or hope no one ever finds on our iPods (I, for one, totally own my love for Justin Bieber). We have all also had a wide variety of beloved bands throughout the years, and I find it particularly embarrassing and enjoyable to revisit some of my favourites.

In my profile, I’ve made it sound like I always had awesome taste, writing about my early love for Third Eye Blind and The Wallflowers as if I were some sort of young musical genius (wait, that didn’t make me cool?). But I also went through some other phases, a couple of which I’ve written about previously (Mary Chapin Carpenter ringing any bells?). While my junior high years were typically spent memorizing the lyrics to Backstreet Boys songs, high school was a different story. High school, in the early 2000s, was when I discovered a passion for angry music, and really, is there any better time to undergo this phase?

Yes, I was on board the emo train, listening to Dashboard Confessional’s screechy and depressing “Screaming Infidelities” on repeat, most likely while thinking of all the people who were disappointing me in my life. But emo was a little on the whiny side, so I quickly tired of this and forged into the territory of bands like Brand New and Something Corporate.

When I listen to Brand New’s Your Favourite Weapon or Something Corporate’s Leaving Through the Window now, I’m not shocked and appalled that I’d once considered this music as the gospel truth. It’s actually kind of catchy stuff. What I do remember, though, is that I thrived off those lyrics, happy that there were angrier people in the world, ones who were even applauded for bringing this anger to public attention. Now, admittedly, I think some of these lyrics may be a bit harsh, but I don’t deny that pretty much everyone can relate to them, or was able to at some point in their lives.

Here are some examples, if you can pretend you weren’t listening to “I Woke Up in a Car” or “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad.” Brand New was always pushing the limits, with lines filled with a very personal kind of hatred, like “and even if her plane crashes tonight, she’ll find some way to disappoint me by not burning in the wreckage or drowning at the bottom of the sea.” That’s pretty heavy, but I think the fact that it’s so terrible makes most other thoughts you might have had seem all the less terrible.

Something Corporate was more about the typical questioning of your place in the world. Lines like “I’ve never felt so lost, I’ve never felt so much at home” and “you always said destiny would blow me away, and nothing’s gonna blow me away” are probably taken most seriously by 17-year-olds, and I sure knew what they were getting at. Their songs were also also a touch evil, with “If You C Jordan” as a prime example (“I don’t care if you dye your hair, you’ll always be a little redhead bitch”).

Sure, there was lots of other, way angrier music out there at the time, stuff like Korn and Limp Bizkit, but that never seemed much like music to me, and I think what I liked best about a band like Brand New was that the songs were pretty catchy, so an appreciation for the lyrics could be kept secret. Because even when I was 17, I knew being so blatantly angry simply wasn’t cool.

Disclaimer: I did kind of like that Limp Bizkit “Rearranged” song. You know the one. The video involved milk and a prison.

Mix Music from The National with a Great Film, and You’ve Got … a Win Win

12 10 2011

I can’t stop listening to The National’s “Think You Can Wait,” the song that played during the credits of Win Win, a great film that you probably haven’t seen (yet). This song, much like every other National song, is dark and slow, but in a catchy way that has you singing the line “we’ve been losing our exits, one by one” like it’s a lyric from a pop song.

This video for the movie features atypical film footage, like bloopers and behind-the-scenes looks, but what’s particularly weird about it is that the sound from the footage fades in and out of the music, so you can hear babies shout, various wrestling sounds, etc. I found it a bit jarring at first, but it sort of grew on me, partly because I appreciated that it was something I hadn’t seen done before. Thoughts?

Also, if I hadn’t watched this video (which I happily stumbled upon earlier today), I wouldn’t know that Win Win was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who you may or may not recognize as the jerk-face reporter from The Wire and the kind-of-lame teacher from Boston Public. You learn something new every day.

Mr. Plaskett is Nothing If Not Ambitious

10 10 2011

The full title of Joel Plaskett’s latest album (mostly re-issues of old songs with a few unreleased gems thrown into the mix) is Emergencys, False Alarms, Shipwrecks, Castaways, Fragile Creatures, Special Features, Demons and Demonstrations: 1990-2010. It’s a lot of name for an album that I initially had mixed feelings about, but have come to love (like every other thing Plaskett has done).

I was lucky enough to find the album on vinyl (thankfully, it also comes with a CD, since I don’t actually own a record player) at Sonic Boom in Toronto shortly after it was released, and have been formulating my opinion ever since. The album gets off to a great start with “On the Rail,” an upbeat little tune about Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail that I only heard him perform live once, at the free show in Toronto this past June. I’ve been singing the song’s great line, “I wanna set my heart on the rail” for months now, and this is by far my favourite song on the album.

From here we go to “Make a Little Noise,” from the Make a Little Noise EP that was released with the DVD in 2006. This is a great song that hadn’t been officially included on any album, so I was happy to see it here, along with “A Million Dollars.”

There’s no question that my favourite songs on this album are the ones I hadn’t heard anywhere before, with the exception of “Money in the Bank,” which is a bit screechy and reminds me too much of the Thrush Hermit songs I find a bit underwhelming. The upbeat songs caught my attention the most, with “Please Don’t Return,” “Romantic Riot,” and “When I Do” runners-up in the favourite category to “On the Rail.” That being said, the slower and emotional “Cold Blue Light” and “The Hurt’s All Gone” are also strong contenders, because, while they’re not as catchy, Joel is arguably at his best when he’s passionately crooning.

While I don’t enjoy the version of “Nothing More to Say” as much as the one on Ashtray Rock, I like the shift in perspective that takes place. On another Ashtray Rock note, one of the low points for me was the alternate versions of songs from this album, like “Drunk Teenagers” and “Snowed In,” perhaps for no other reason than the originals were never at the top of my list to begin with.

Note: There are some great lines on here, and “you mix shots from the bar in a Mason jar” and “I’ll stay home and feed the kitten” are two of the gems I recall at the moment.

The National Hits Prime Time

28 09 2011

This is a post about music on TV, because when I wasn’t writing for this thing, I was off getting caught up on some awesome television shows, and I noticed that the sounds of The National were permeating through more than a couple episodes of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.

My first thought was that Jason Katims, working behind the scenes on both shows, was responsible for making these excellent song choices. But then my more TV-savvy friend pointed out that these shows would also have large musical teams in charge of what songs go into episodes. Which isn’t to say that Katims can’t be a die-hard National fan, but rather that he wasn’t the one to make the original call. So then I tried to figure out who I should be thanking for their excellent judgment, and I’ve decided that it’s going to be Liza Richardson, because IMDB says she worked as the music supervisor on both shows, and in my mind, that makes her the smart one who knows how to use a good Matt Berninger baritone at the right moment. So thanks, Liza, because even if it wasn’t you, as supervisor, you still allowed it to happen. I’ve also noticed that she works on pretty much every show out there, so chances are we’ll be hearing a lot more from The National on future television.

I guess it helps that young characters have rebelliously run away in episodes of both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, making no song more apt than High Violet’s “Runaway.” True devotion to using these moving songs during moving moments, however, can be seen in the use of three songs by The National in the second half of Parenthood‘s second season (“Start a War,” “Runaway,” and “Slow Show,” respectively). Here’s hoping we hear “Terrible Love” by the end of season three.

Summer Music Pinnacle(s)

25 09 2011

It’s been a while, blog friends. Lots has happened in the world of music, so let’s just stick to my highlights from the past summer.

The funny thing is, though I’m in Toronto, where most of the music magic happens, two of my most shining music moments happened in a little place called Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

First, I saw a band you may have heard of play at Alderney Landing, the outdoor concert venue that has allowed Dartmouth to effectively steal shows from its bossy and more popular Halifax neighbour. That’s right, I saw the Arcade Fire play in Dartmouth. This was one of the only bands on my ‘must-see’ list that I hadn’t yet experienced, so I was pumped to see them on my home turf, especially when they were fresh off their Grammy win. They played a great show, and you could tell they were really into it, but there just seemed to be some sort of disconnect between the band and the crowd. Sure, people were belting out the words and getting pretty crazy, but it felt like something was missing, and even as I write this now, I have no idea what it was. Perhaps it had something to do with their song selection. I was a bit confused as to why they would play so many songs from Neon Bible, the album that is generally the least enjoyed, and their timing of the slower songs may not have been ideal, as the crowd seemed almost sleepy at points. And saving two of their best songs for the encore makes a lot of sense, but these are songs that would have pumped up the crowd in the beginning, instead of at the end of the night when they were left wanting more fun songs and in pursuit of cheaper beer. But don’t get me wrong – this was a great show and I consider myself very lucky to have experienced it.

My other great music moment is one that I’ve been waiting for for a very long time. Yes, I finally saw Joel Plaskett out on the town, and had the courage to offer him a few kind words. What made it so much better was that it took place in my favourite local watering hole, and that he was generally encouraging when I interrupted what I’m sure he’d planned as a quiet night out with his pals. He really is an approachable, grounded guy, and the fact that he has the same appreciation for the off-the-beaten-path haunts of Dartmouth is definitely an added bonus.

The Joe Plastic Energy Band Takes Hamilton

13 03 2011

Yes, I really mean the Joel Plaskett Emergency, which brought a fine night of East Coast rock to Hamilton last Thursday. If you’d been in attendance, you would understand the reference. Since you probably weren’t, I suppose I can let you in on how the show went. (PS the title is a reference to one of the many misprints the band faced in its early days in Nova Scotia).

I saw Joel at the same venue, the Studio at Hamilton Place, last year, but this time he brought his band mates, Chris Pennell and Dave Marsh, with him. The seating had also been rearranged, and I had a front-row seat in the middle of the balcony, comfortable for foot-tapping and with a clear line to the action.

Peter Elkas, sometime member of the Emergency, opened the show, and could only stay for six songs before heading to Guelph to continue promoting his new album, Repeat Offender. Elkas played three songs from this album, including the happy-go-lucky “Cool Thing to Do,” “Anticipation,” and “Blue of You.” Plaskett’s own New Scotland Records, based out of Dartmouth, released the album, which showcases Elkas’s smooth voice and folksy sound.

Joel and the boys were all business when they took to the stage, immediately ripping into a rocking version of Plaskett’s biggest hit from Three, “Through & Through & Through.” They followed this up with more gems from the latest album, before settling on a song the crowd recognized much better: “Work Out Fine,” from Truthfully, Truthfully. Plaskett started this one off with an elegy to his earless cat, Little White Fang, whose stories always melt my little heart.

As is typical at Emergency shows, Pennell and Marsh took a break while Plaskett did his own mini acoustic set. Heartfelt renditions of “New Scotland Blues” and “Happen Now” had the crowd silent, except for the one extremely loud (and probably extremely drunk) woman who took this opportunity to tell stories over the sound of Plaskett’s tunes. This lady was a huge downer, especially since I’m fairly certain she was the one who loudly requested the same song three times. The only good thing to come from this was that her request (twice referred to, incorrectly, as “One in a Million,” and only once as “Million Dollars”) was never actually met, and she probably went home loudly lamenting her great misfortune.

The crowd got excited again with familiar tunes from Ashtray Rock, including “Snowed In” and “Face of the Earth,” and proved they actually know the words when they belted out the lyrics to “Extraordinary.” Everyone also enjoyed a comment-laden version of “Love This Town,” during which Plaskett admitted that he only holds on to his grudge with Kelowna for “entertainment purposes.” It was weird to see so many people from Hamilton get so excited about a song that is so obviously about Halifax, but was touching nonetheless.

Other songs from the set included “Natural Disaster,” “Nowhere With You,” and two new songs, including “I’m Yours.”

The boys were back for an encore that consisted of “Down at the Khyber” and “Come on Teacher,” the latter bringing fans to their feet as Plaskett proved that he’s not just an acoustic poster boy, and can rock out with the best of them.

Now I have to say something that’s difficult for a long-time JP fan to admit: this was not my favourite Joel Plaskett performance. That’s not to say that it wasn’t an excellent performance, because it was. Joel and his Emergency backers had a Hamilton crowd dancing, clapping, and stomping. It just isn’t the same to see him without the Halifax hometown crowd, which always knows all the words to every song, and zealously comments on his sweater vests.

It was also at least the 9th time that I’ve seen Plaskett in concert, so it’s difficult not to compare every performance to this hefty repertoire (and I still don’t think anything can top his acoustic show at St. Matthew’s United Church in Halifax a few years ago). That being said, Plaskett sure impressed the hell out of Hamilton, and I’m impressed with the fact that Joel didn’t even bother stopping in Toronto on his tour of mostly university towns. Looks like that East Coast charm will never fade.