Concert Review: Ruston Kelly, Margaret Glaspy, November 15, Axis Club

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The closure of music venues across Toronto and elsewhere has been just one of the many disheartening things about life during COVID, with one of the more notable local casualties being the loss of The Mod Club. Luckily though, we barely had time to mourn that venue before it was announced that a new club would be opening in its place. And so the Axis Club was born. The venue’s been open now for a couple of months or so, and last night I got the chance to check it out for myself when Ruston Kelly and Margaret Glaspy played there as part of Kelly’s Shape & Destroy Tour.

So what’s the verdict on Axis Club? Not bad – there’s been a few alterations made since the Mod Club days, most notably the removal of the slightly elevated spot on the floor of the venue, but it’s not too drastic of a change and generally the place looks pretty good. Overall though, it’s just nice to see that the venue has survived, albeit with a change in name and ownership. Live music has definitely been missed and the more places around where shows can take place the better.

For her part, Margaret Glaspy also spoke of the importance of live music, how good it was to be back in Toronto, and how grateful she was to be performing and touring again. “This exchange that we do between a musician and an audience is just such a holy thing,” she said, and that’s as good a way as any to put it.

The importance of that “holy thing” Glaspy spoke of also came up during Ruston Kelly’s set as he spoke of the significance of this particular tour to him personally.

“I needed to do this tour,” he said, noting that the beginning stages of what would become Shape & Destroy marked a new beginning for him as he ended a cycle of drug abuse and addiction. He told the story of the first song he wrote for the album, a song that according to him, resonated deeper with him than any of his songs had before. That song, “Rubber”, was a definite highlight of the night.

While Ruston Kelly is a talented songwriter, 2019’s Dirt Emo showed that he’s also capable of doing some solid cover songs, and some of the more memorable moments of his set came through in his choice of covers. His version of “Teenage Dirtbag” is surprisingly effective – the grit in his voice and the weeping steel guitar certainly add a bit of pathos to Wheatus’s tale of teenage love and Iron Maiden fandom. And of course with Taylor Swift’s recent release of her rerecorded version of Red, Kelly’s cover of “All Too Well” does in fact fit in all too well with the current zeitgeist. He kept his version well under 10 minutes though, which may have disappointed any hardcore Swifties in attendance. That’s OK, though – they’ll just have to wait for the inevitable Red (Taylor’s Version) world tour.

Album Review: Wolf Alice-Blue Weekend (2021, Dirty Hit)

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No, it’s not Christmas yet. But as I wrote this, there was a team of Chicago fire department firefighters right outside my window. That automagically warm and fuzzy green-red combo dabbed with the blue of Chicago PD, rebounded from the opposite apartment’s yellow brick lattice, finally seeping into my eyeballs. Then I looked down at this album’s cover with the exact same mixture, even the watercolor haze, here in my apartment reproduced by the lax window cleaning over the past many months.

I can see how Wolf Alice resemble firefighters – versatile jack-of-all trades who escape genres with as much confidence and ease as one must when responding to a fast shifting blaze. They were frequently criticized on dithering between styles and lacking in commitment, shoegazing with the other foot on indie rock slathered in back-country twang sauce. I think such a complaint misses the mark. They are simply both comfortable and fluent across multiple ways of making music. In their third full length album, Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice clearly assert their maturity beyond 2015’s My Love is Cool. Although they have not strayed far from the similar ingredients of decisive melodies, big choruses, screaming recitations, and ascending volume/scale, the alchemy that emulsifies these together has certainly improved.

So, indeed, the “production value” is much higher, perhaps attributable to their incidental aging and experience accumulation. But there is also a somewhat attendant loss in rawness as their arrangements become highly polished. As engaging and enjoyable as the tracks are, the sum of the parts does not match Visions of a Life for, well, vision. And attitude.

As if implicitly understanding we may have come directly from the two previous albums, however, Blue Weekend starts off with “The Beach” as palate cleanser and “The Beach II” as a chaser. Between those sand patches, Ellie Rowsell’s highly malleable voice, whether through the quick changes in registers of “Lipstick on the Glass” or the delicate yet precise “How Can I Make It OK?”, remains the backbone of the band’s incredible range. With melodic lines that never fail to impress, my favorite on the album might be the short and sweet ballad “No Hard Feelings”. Overall, though you might not be sated in any one stream, it is quite difficult to go off a wrong path on Blue Weekend.

There was one more window, way off in the distance, that pumped out the same tri-color light in a light-house like rotation. But that was just some random disco ball. I wondered if a disco ball was on beach number two… it was definitely better than the Scottish play on the first.

Retro Album Review: The Selecter-Too Much Pressure (1980, 2 Tone Records)

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In a twisted way, some blues enthusiasts could be mistakenly interpreted as masochists. Just realizing that one is in fact distilling sonic pleasure from painful experiences, with only the emotional range to sympathize not empathize with the struggles of the people who felt, wrote, and must keep plodding through with the daily blues. On that far-off wavelength, the same alternative lens could be placed on much of classical music – simply contextualize Mozart’s keyboard pieces not as high culture touchstones but the onion, mustard, and relish that dresses the weiner and franks of ritualized Prussian aristocratic courtship. Try to flush that scene down the toilet the next time you cue up a piano sonata.

The 1.5 year drought of hotdogs and other essentials (definitely not ketchup) has clearly clouded something.

Ska, then, is really a lighter, more upbeat, skankable Jamaican take hiding behind the same root issues as the blues – making it easier to jump and dance to one’s blues lightens but does not dilute them.

The Selecter are a ska band from the working class backdrop of Coventry. The American rust belt took after the universality of the blues. After their own similarly rapid and prolonged decline from manufacturing glory, ska was evolved in English West Midlands to become the (societally) preferred outlet to such “raging angst”. Let’s just say that having an identity and community produces an extremely comforting anchor, and is probably the more placid and productive group activity relative to soccer hooliganism and revolution.

The aesthetics of 2-tone albums were apparently standardized by the few record labels, and reminds me of the dicing tartan on police hats of the UK and oddly, Chicago. Perhaps somewhere, someone had mistaken 2-tone for halftone, and was not half-unpleased with the results? But I digress.

Too Much Pressure is in fact the Selecter’s first of two albums before breaking up officially in 1982 (though they’ve since reformed). I was surprised at the amount of worthwhile numbers in this one album, which for me includes “Missing Words”, “Time Hard”, “They Make Me Mad”, and “Out On The Streets”. These are particularly brilliant, descriptive, and melodically attentive. I might have presumed there would be something that could accompany the intervening panoramic shots for Death In Paradise. Clearing that musical low bar obviously wasn’t even a question, and I should not have prepared to be dismissive and then feigned such “surprise”. This music clearly has staying power. Although imagining it being performed in tuxedo and tailcoats of 400 years into the future is an exercise equally interesting as re-creating 1980s Coventry. I’m sure it’s not hard to find a MET opera that screams “MURDER!!!”

The special edition of The Selecter’s ‘Too Much Pressure’ out now via Chrysalis Records.

Concert Review: Respire, November 12, The Garrison

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Right after finishing their soundcheck at The Garrison on Friday night, each of the members of Respire left the stage so that they could make a proper entrance once they started their show – it was a record release show, after all. And after waiting almost a year to properly celebrate their album release with a hometown show, I’d say they’ve earned to right to make a grand entrance of sorts.

After a long time away from performing, the band finally made their return to playing shows again in celebration of the release of their latest record Black Line, which came out in December of last year. While this wasn’t technically the first show they’ve played since COVID shut live music down for awhile (they played a show the night before in Cambridge, Ontario), it definitely seemed like a triumphant return to the stage as the band shared this moment with a number of friends and fans in attendance … as well as their parents, sort of.

Near the end of the set, the band brought a friend out on stage to take a photo of the crowd that they could send to their parents, presumably to prove to them that, yes, lots of people actually do care about this music that they’re making and it’s not just a waste of time. It was a nice moment.

The elevator pitch for Respire is essentially ‘screamo meets post-rock meets metal’, and that’s fair, but there’s definitely a lot more of GY!BE or even Dirty Three in their sound than there is Alexisonfire. It’s still plenty heavy though – there’s most definitely a noticeable black metal influence in there, with the similarly genre-defying Deafheaven being the most obvious comparison. It’s an impressive sound, with the music often changing gears and shifting musically over the course of one song, usually ending in a big cathartic climax.

With horns and a violin as part of their sound, it’s definitely a complex, heady musical blend, but unlike some bands who might walk a similar musical path, Respire’s music seems less of the head and more of the heart – this is music you feel. This isn’t the sort of show where folks stand around with their arms crossed studying the notes played, it’s the sort of show where mosh pits might periodically break out. Yes, this crowd was definitely feeling it. And rightfully so.