POP Montreal: Ronnie Spector, CROSSS, TOPS, Kurvi Tasch

Ronnie Spector at the Rialto Theatre. Photo by Dominick Mastrangelo.

At the Rialto opening up for the legendary Ronnie Spector is Bloodshot Bill, making music to dance to for a room full of tables. I've never seen Bill on such a big stage, and it feels a little weird. Even he admits how absurd it is to play for a bunch if people sitting down, making his pauses extra long and telling the crowd to "shhhh" before chuckling and moving on. Somehow in a fancy theatre his act feels more like a schtick.

But all is not stuffy here at this POP / Jazz Fest collaboration, and by the bar his ferocious psychobilly is met with cheers — the rest slowly warming up to him. But whoever's doing lighting fails miserably at following Bill's impromptu stops and snorts.

When Ronnie Spector takes the stage for her "Beyond the Beehive" show, she has the crowd's full attention. This was a night about affirming her importance in the history of pop music, with Ronnie narrating her story in front of projected photos and video clips as she works through the singles.

It was an emotional trip through her relationship with deranged killer/hitmaker Phil Spector, taking us through the pain of being in an abusive relationship.

"All I knew about Phil is that he was one smooth operator," Ronnie says as she details her first encounters with a man who would go on to trap her in her own home and try to ruin her career. The instantly recognizable "Be my Baby" was played in an encore to allow for some loophole in Phil and Ronnie's divorce settlement.

At 71, Ronnie's voice still holds up and she has attitude to spare. It was an honour to hear her story, from growing up in Harlem to getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But then it's time to return to this decade at a packed Brasserie Beaubien, where there's a lazy attempt at a mosh pit while CROSSS are playing(read an interview with CROSSS here). They're channeling Sabbath heaviness as singer Andy March is joined by his current band for one of the last times, Nathan Doucet bashing the hell out of the kit. They're followed by Calgary punk four-piece Hag Face, who successfully beat all those '60s girl group songs out of my head.

At Casa Brazilian Money take a moment from their upbeat pop set to plug Monster Energy, who are sponsoring POP this year. I'm going to assume it was a joke making fun of the whole thing (they can't actually require bands to talk about an energy drink can they??), but I was mostly impressed the singer was able to take a swig of their new "blue" flavour with a smile on his face. Anyways, this non-sponsored blog post is telling you to never drink that shit, even if it's free.

The crowd's loving The Rural Alberta Advantage as they work through new stuff at Cabaret Mile End, but the band is having even more fun. Singer Nils Edenloff says it's the biggest crowd they've played to in Montreal (if you don't count opening for The Hip last summer), and it feels like everyone is singing along to their old stuff.

TOPS at Sala Rossa. Photo  by Cindy Lopez.

While it's a radio-friendly sing-along at with the RAA it's hipster prom at Sala for TOPS, the band playing cuts off their dreamy new record Picture You Staring. Their sound is part Fleetwood Mac part Twin Peaks (a comparison someone must have used before) and they own the hometown crowd, headlining the sold-out Arbutus Records showcase.

I cut out early though to catch the end of Kurvi Tasch's set back at Casa, expanding their track "Fractured Lens" with a furious jam in nine and ending the set with the title track off their new record On Firm Ground. Their sound has evolved into something creeping and reactive, drums and bass playing off Alex Nicol's twisted chords as they pull from the darker parts of new wave.

Is This Really So Original?

Ever since hearing her Geidi Primes cassette about halfway through 2010, I’ve been trying to see what’s so alluring about this hype enigma that is Grimes. With something of a cutsie-minimalism to her solo-synth approach, it came off as something tolerable, the kind of sound that you’ll bob your head along to encouragingly as your friend has fun making music. But that’s exactly what Geidi Primes was, a record made because Boucher wanted to do what all her friends were doing. It had some surface value, but little bubbling underneath. Which was understandable, since Boucher was so new to songwriting.

But since then the buzz has built incessantly, with the similarly blasé Halfaxa and the re-release of Geidi Primes. But now with her 4AD debut  Visions, there’s nothing ambiguous about her intentions; this LP can’t be brushed off as a negligible hip passtime. The reality is, Boucher has gotten major attention with marginally better music.

While on Visions the production value is leaps and bounds ahead of her first two records, the songs remain half-baked and ultimately unmemorable. Every synthesized line sounds like it’s queued up from a list of Casio presets, and while layering bits of that Casio canon under a guise of reverb will get you dancing, nothing will be remembered at the end of each two-minute space-vamp. It’s a record of re-hashed ideas and empty calories.

Like her Arbutus label-mate Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Boucher loops and layers her voice, but unlike Grimes, the Braids/Blue Hawaii frontwoman can actually sing. When you take away the overdubbing and effects on Visions, all you’re left with is a thin voice singing half-melodies. Her delivery is impersonal and uninterested; it would be surprising if the lyrics mean anything to her.

At its best this record supplies filler dance tunes for a DJ set, and at its worst it’s little more than shitty, pseudo-Bjork noise trying in vain to capture the intense nostalgic delicacy of How to Dress Well. If she’s really emulating pop hits, why is none of this sticking in my head?

Native Love, Native Tongue

Braids' debut LP Native Speaker is worth the wait

Austin and Raphaelle are clearly excited for what they have spent the better part of a year perfecting.

Drummer Austin Tufts fuses several influences to create a playing style something like Animal's Collective's “My Girls” done with a full kit. Raphaelle Standell-Preston's free flowing vocals inhabit the foreground, with delicate trails leading to a yelp or scream – something Bjork would do. Last month the art-pop quartet released Native Speaker, their self-produced full-length.

“At times it was very gruelling because we were pushing the limitations of what we were capable of,” said Standell-Preston about the recording process. “Sometimes we'd do 300 vocal takes... we were pushing ourselves to record what was in our heads.”

Capturing their expansive live sound was a challenge for the band, having never produced a record before. Braids found their production legs in bassist/guitarist Taylor Smith's Calgary garage through months of experimenting.

“That's something we battled with big time,” said Tufts. “We ended up laying down the beds and then overdubbed everything except the drums. One of the hardest things when you're doing overdubbing is to make it really groove and to lock, to keep that live energy.”

“We were very worried about the magic almost being gone because the energy of the four of us playing [live] has a certain feel to it,” added Standell-Preston. “We were trying all these different ways to get it back in, and I feel we succeeded.”

The amount of time spent on crafting their intertwined sound is evident on Native Speaker, a dreamy, layered record with an average track length of over six minutes. Tuft explores unorthodox rhythms, employing all parts of his kit to beef up the band's rhythmic component.

“When I first started listening to Animal Collective I thought they went for a really nice timbre with the sound of the rims that I had never heard before,” said Tufts. “I started exploring that in a different direction with Latin rhythms.”

“Definitely my biggest inspiration for my drum parts are the melody in the song,” he continued. “All my favourite drummers are very melodic. Christopher Bear from Grizzly Bear does some really nice stuff... "Two Weeks" is a really good example of how melodic drums can be.”

Tufts has drawn influence from contemporary artists' use of electronic percussion as well.

“A lot of my favourite musicians these days are electronic artists,” he said. “The main focus is the drums in a lot of German instrumental music, and a couple friends of mine from Calgary doing really great electronic stuff like Morgan Greenwood - it's exactly the kind of style I want to figure out on the drum set.”

Braids have begun incorporating electronic texture into their sound. The band uses contact microphones, equipment that will capture Tufts' playing as electronic impulses for bandmates to control.

“We're starting to get into using contact microphones on the drum set and running them to different members of the band, having them manipulate my drums while I'm playing,” said Tufts. “You can create really cool drum glitches and delays.”

Even when experimenting with new tools, everything is subordinated to the overall atmosphere of the song. Braids compose intricately subtle soundscapes housing dynamics and melody.

“Our music provides an environment to be emotional in,” said Tufts. Whatever emotion that's evoked - go for it. Don't be afraid because that emotion is you.”