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Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Over The Top

I don’t think it’s ever taken me a week to put together a review – but considering that this is encompassing twelve bands over four days as part of this year’s Over The Top Fest, I think I’m allowed a little extra time.

It’s funny to think that before the festival began, I was speculating that I’d surely end up seeing stuff I didn’t like, based largely on the fact that I didn’t know a lot of the bands playing and one must be realistic about such things. Well in the post-mortem, I can say with no small amount of astonishment that I enjoyed almost everything I saw – I may not be joining some fan clubs or rushing out to buy the records, but as far as the specific performances I saw over the course of last weekend go, almost everything was some degree of terrific.

I spent the first two nights at the Tranzac as well as Saturday afternoon before wrapping things up with another matinee on Sunday at Sneaky Dee’s. I didn’t purposely avoid the bigger-name shows but that’s how things shook out, making for a really laid back festival which suited me just fine. Anyway, let’s get into it (eye also has a wrapup of their weekend).

The Icicles (Grand Rapids, MI) – This four-girl, one-guy outfit started things off with matching airline-themed costumes, synchronized leg kicks and sugary pop confections topped of with tight, sweet harmonies. A late sub-in for a canceled band, they were retro without being kitchsy and so full of smiles they were impossible to dislike. Their new album is Arrivals & Departures and apparently they had a song in a Motorola commercial? News to me, but it explains how they paid for those snazzy outfits.

MP3: The Icicles – “La Ti Da”
eCard: The Icicles / Arrivals & Departures
MySpace: The Icicles

Casper & The Cookies (Athens, GA) – Even if I didn’t know they came from Athens, GA, I’d have guessed this four-piece came from Athens. Sounding like the offspring of Elf Power and early Of Montreal, their glammy psych pop was enthusiastic but also overly generic. Their energy onstage was appreciated but the music, while proficient, was ultimately unremarkable.

MP3: Casper & The Cookies – “Kroetenwanderung”
MP3: Casper & The Cookies – “April 18, 2003 part 4”
MySpace: Casper & The Cookies

The Hylozoists (Toronto, ON) – The room had been rather empty for the first couple acts but by the time the local heroes took the stage, there was a decent-sized crowd in attendance. The eight-piece lineup was only a little smaller than the massive vibraphonic spree I saw in Austin in March but the missing members (a cello and trumpet, at least) took some of the orchestral grandeur with them. Which isn’t to say that their set didn’t sound terrific – it did, whatever their configuration The Hylozoists always sound terrific – but it did reinforce the opinion that that show in Texas, so massive and majestic-sounding, was something really special.

MP3: The Hylozoists – “Smiley Smiley”
MP3: The Hylozoists – “Strait Is the Gate”
MySpace: The Hylozoists

Nick Krgovich (Vancouver, BC) – When someone at an indie rock show says they’re going to cover the entirety of Sade’s Lovers Rock save for one song, it’s hard to know whether or not they’re serious. Nick Krgovich, best known as part of Vancouver orch-pop outfit P:ano, was serious. He opened the second night of the fest with a solo set of Sade covers, accompanying his delicate falsetto with spare synthesizers and loops. The fact that it all sounded really, really good is as much a testament to Sade’s songwriting skills as Krgovich’s musical abilities. An odd but really enjoyable start to the evening.

MySpace: P:Ano

Vague Angels (New York City, NY) – Best known (to me, anyway) as fronted by Chris Leo, brother of Ted, there was definitely something familiar and fraternal in their sound, Chris’ songwriting is a lot less compact pop and more free-form, stream-of-consciousness narrative. There’s an occasional hook thrown in to keep your ear interested but the vibe was rather beatnik bar-like. That Leo spent the set seated on the edge of his guitar case didn’t help much. Apparently Ted got the need to rock out, Chris got the hairline.

MP3: Vague Angels – “Vague Angels Of Vagary”
Video: Vague Angels – “Vague Angels Of Vagary” (MOV)

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (Chicago, IL) – Apparently this was Casiotone’s first-ever show in Toronto and judging from the sold-out crowd, some folks have been waiting for this for a long time. Looking as casual as you can get in a worn old cardigan, Owen Ashworth set up behind a small fortress of keyboards (largely Casios, natch) and performed the charming bedroom anthems that have garnered endless comparisons to Stephin Merritt. Though he opened and closed the set performing alone (though he didn’t look pained about it), the highlights were when he was joined by Jennifer Hermannsson on vocals, her sunny voice and demeanor offering a counterpoint to Ashworth’s hangdog demeanor. A nice cap to a low-key evening. Check out an interview with Ashworth at Bandega.

MP3: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – “Young Shields”
MP3: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – “Cold White Christmas”
MP3: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – “Bobby Malone Moves Home”
MySpace: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone

Yah Mos Def (Philadelphia, PA) – The weekend matinee shows, as solid as the lineups were, were at a bit of a disadvantage as far as luring attendees went because it was absolutely beautiful out. It’s hard to argue for hanging out inside a dark club instead of a sunny patio. And so it was that Philly punk/hip-hop duo Yah Mos Def (one word away from a lawsuit) found themselves playing to a largely empty room. They didn’t seem to notice or mind, however, because as soon as their ipod DJ kicked in, they were all over the stage doing their thing like early Beastie Boys. I realize that’s a rather obvious and cliche reference point, but I’m not a hip-hop guy. It’s all I got. But I do know they didn’t sound like Mos Def.

Page France (Baltimore, MD) – I’m sort of on record as not being much of a Page France fan, so I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the set from the stripped down lineup of singer/guitarist Michael Nau and bassist Jasen Reeder. I thought I’d miss the orchestral touches the rest of the band would have added but kept starker and simpler, I found their songs to be less fluffy and even detected a bittersweetness that I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe I need to go back and listen closer.

MP3: Page France – “Hat And Rabbit”
MySpace: Page France

Matt & Kim (Brooklyn, NY) – Also proving they deserved a second look were the duo of Matt & Kim. I had given their album a spin a while back and found the giddy energy contained therein too much to take but in a live context, it makes for pretty much the best time ever. With Matt on vocals and keyboards and Kim a dervish on the drum kit, the pair were like a musical overdose of happy pills, especially with Matt as the almost absurdly effervescent frontman. The crowd was small but I wager we had a good enough time to cover for everyone else in the city. Definite highlight of the weekend.

MP3: Matt & Kim – “No More Long Years”
MP3: Matt & Kim – “Yea Yeah”
Video: Matt & Kim – “Yea Yeah” (YouTube)
Video: Matt & Kim – “5K” (MOV)
MySpace: Matt & Kim

Darling Arms (Montreal, QC) – The Sunday matinee at Sneaky Dee’s promised to be a low key, sedate affair which after four straight days of show-going, suited me just fine. Leading things off were Darling Arms from Montreal, whose debut EP I reviewed last year. Those recordings were mainly Christina Frances solo but the band now includes a drummer and cellist and as nice as the recorded versions of the songs were, they really sounded splendid with the extra instrumentation bolstering Frances’ sad and lovely voice. Really nice stuff.

MP3: Darling Arms – “Beluga”

Wyrd Visions (Toronto, ON) – I caught Wyrd Visions at last year’s Over The Top matinee and wasn’t terribly impressed with his one-man dronefest performance. But it seems he’s learned something of songwriting efficiency in the interim, with his compositions now only seeming to last a really long time instead of an eternity. But seriously, while his stuff continues to fall on the wrong side of the hypnotic/narcoleptic line for my tastes, it’s evident that it’s evolving and someday it could quite possibly be something I’d enjoy. Except for the thing where he spells “w-y-r-d-v-i-s-i-o-n-s” for 10 minutes. That has got to stop.

Mt Eerie (Anacortes, WA) – The works of Phil Elverum, until this day, had been pretty much completely unknown to me. I’d never heard anything he’d done as either Mt Eerie or The Microphones but had always heard it spoken of in hushed, reverential tones so I was pleased for the opportunity to see what he was about. I’d expected a set of the quiet, acoustic-y singer-songwriter stuff that was posted at his websites, but instead the set began with Elverum strapping on an electric guitar and doing the power trio thing with a rhythm section of local players. He seemed to relish the opportunity to rock out, Crazy Horse style, punctuating his songs with ragged guitar solos and occasional bouts of jumping up and down. After getting that out of his system, he settled in with the acoustic guitar and played a set more in line with what I was expecting, Eleverum himself was quirkily charming and his songs that were intimate, a little odd and a lot affecting. Chart talks to Elverum about how he chooses to release his music.

MP3: Mt Eerie – “Woolly Mammoth’s Absence”
MP3: Mt Eerie – “2 Blonde Braids”
MySpace: Mt Eerie

And that was my Over The Top 2007. As I said in the beginning, I opted to see acts that were mainly unfamiliar to me and it was a strategy that paid of very nicely. I don’t know that I came away with any favourite new bands, but by and large I had a good time just enjoying whatever it was that I was seeing at any given show, no doubt part of the festival’s strategy of eclectic lineups. I also heard that the shows I didn’t go to were generally all very successful and well-received. It’s really nice to see the Over The Top Fest continue to grow each year and yet somehow stay just as grassroots as it ever was (I think this was my fifth year of attending the shows). Congratulations to everyone who organized and ran things on a job well done and I’m looking forward to next year.

Photos: The Hylozoists, Casper & The Cookies, The Icicles @ The Tranzac – May 3, 2007
Photos: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, Vague Angels, Nick Krgovich @ The Tranzac – May 4, 2007
Photos: Matt & Kim, Page France, The Yah Mos Def @ The Tranzac – May 5, 2007
Photos: Mt Eerie, Wyrd Visions, Darling Arms @ Sneaky Dee’s – May 6, 2007

And as long as I’m talking festivals, hello Austin City Limits lineup. Am I going back to Texas again this year? I may very well.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Driving Headlong Towards The Biggest Fight Of His Life

While this year’s edition of the Over The Top Fest, kicking off tonight with shows around the city, isn’t likely to be as dramatic or – let’s face it – as all out awesome as the best Sylvester Stallone truck-driving, arm-wrestling flick of the 80s, it will still probably be pretty good.

While in past years, there were at least one or two shows featuring familiar and favoured bands, this year’s lineup didn’t have any “must-sees” for me. Which actually made picking shows harder, since arguments could be made for hitting up any number of shows scheduled against one another. It’s almost like… an ARM WRESTLE. However, this is where the sheer eclecticism of the acts playing over the next four days and nights comes in handy – I’ll surely be seeing stuff that’s new and foreign to me and my tastes, and while it’s improbable that I’ll like it all, it’ll definitely be interesting. Like arm wrestling.

But I think I’ve made my choices and expect the weekend to shake out as follows: start things off tonight with the vibraphone ecstasy of The Hylozoists, Athens, GA psych-poppers Casper & The Cookies and the retro girl-groupness of Grand Rapids’ The Icicles at the Tranzac. Tomorrow it’s back to the Tranzac for Casiotone For The Painfully Alone’s one-man synthery, Vague Angels (fronted by Chris Leo, brother of Ted) and Nick Krgovich of Vancouver’s P:ano. Then the weekend’s made for matinees with manic synth-pop duo Matt & Kim, twee-er than twee Page France, Philadelphia Television-samplers Yah Mos Def and locals The Fancy Claps and The Weathermaking Challenge at, get ready for it, The Tranzac. And Sunday, finally, is another matinee at Sneaky Dee’s (not the Tranzac!) featuring Phil Elverum’s Mt Eerie, Montreal singer-songwriter Darling Arms and Pilotram, who might play songs with such compelling titles as “Drone In D” and “Drone In E”.

Naturally, I reserve the right to change my mind at the drop of a hat or sleep in and miss an act or two. And there are other bands playing that I’m curious to see – Meligrove Band (who I’ve seen before but are always fun), Japanther, Peter & The Wolf – but one I’m not interested in seeing is de facto festival headliner Daniel Johnston. I respect the man’s songwriting (though I rather prefer them when someone’s covering them) but I saw him open for Yo La Tengo a few years ago and… well, he’s an interesting performer. I’ll certainly give him that much. But that show’s sold out anyways, so it’s a moot point.

Naturally the local media is happily covering the launch of the festival – eye chats up The Phonemes, looks at the Daniel Johnston doc playing as part of the film component and generally previews the fest (there’s also a handy-dandy cut-out guide in the print version of the paper), NOW and The Toronto Star talk to festival founder Eric Warner as well as Daniel Johnston while Chart interviews featured acts The Hylozoists and Japanther.

And for the first year, Over The Top expands its format to include film, theatre and dance components. While hitting the matinees on the weekend does allow me to catch, say, one of the performances of Giant Killer Shark: The Musical (which Chart reports on), it’s far more likely I’ll be geeking out at, say, Spider-Man 3. But for those who prefer their cinema little more rock’n’roll, check out FilmCAN – they’re selling films online including the legendary Bruce McDonald Rock’N’Road trilogy of Roadkill, Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo as well as some of the short films from New Pornographer Blaine Thurier, though they’re not pornography. I think. Also note that the McDonald films are all playing at the Royal tonight, back to back to back, with introductions from McDonald. More info at Stille Post.

And while I’m rounding up reasons to go outside this weekend, note that Friday Saturday is Free Comic Book Day – while most funny book shops around the city will be taking part in the event to some degree, your best bet will certainly be The Beguiling in Mirvish Village, who in addition to giving out free books, will have loads of local comic creators on-hand to sign stuff and just otherwise geek out (there’s that phrase again). And also note that in conjunction with the happenings, Scott McCloud, author of the excellent Understanding Comics and the decidedly less excellent Reinventing Comics will be in town Sunday evening for a lecture at the OISE Theatre at Bloor and St George station. Ticket info on the Beguiling’s website.

And to backtrack a bit to Spider-Man 3, PopMatters has a bluffers guide to all the principals in the new film while looking ahead to NEXT Summer’s comic book blockbuster, Entertainment Weekly has the first look at the final Iron Man armour… and it looks awesome. Even moreso knowing that it’s not Tom Cruise inside it. Via Newsarama.

Looking ahead to next month’s big Toronto music festival, NxNE has released the first official list of bands playing around town the weekend of June 7, 8 and 9. And in keeping with traditions laid out by big brother fest SxSW, the list is nigh unreadable. But a quick scan reveals some interesting names and a distinct international flavour to the lineup – just to name a few, we’ve got pop maven Jason Falkner, DC Leafblower faves Middle Distance Runner, North Carolinans Schooner (who I saw and enjoyed at Pop Montreal last year), Los Angeles’ Sea Wolf (who I saw and enjoyed at SxSW in March), ex-Swervedriver Adam Franklin and, rather out of left field, 90s Irish rockers Therapy?, whose song “Nowhere” I’ve had in my head since I saw their name. More names will probably be added when at a press conference thing next Tuesday evening.

Ooookay, what else we got? Under Byen return to Toronto for the third time in nine months for a show at Lee’s Palace on July 12. You’d think Denmark was right next door or something.

Said The Gramophone interviewed Okkervil River’s Will Sheff for The Believer. Things learned? Don’t mess with Sheff or he’ll knife you.

Uptown talks to Weakerthans guitarist Stephen Carroll about their new album, tentatively titled Reunion Tour and due out in October.