FEATURE: Pop Montreal Music Preview

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For the musically shy, POP Montreal’s surplus of talent can be daunting, if not overwhelming – the annual festival, a landmark on the local calendar for the past decade, boasts over 350 acts wedged into a whirlwind five-day extravaganza. Luckily, the Tribune’s intrepid team has scoured the lineup for you—from household names to up and comers, we’ve got the most anticipated gigs covered.

Grizzly Bear

When “Sleeping Ute,” the first single off Grizzly Bear’s latest offering Shields was released, I fell into a momentary state of shock. The group’s last album—2009’s Veckatimest —had put the Brooklyn-based quartet at the top of year-end lists, casting an indelible mark on listeners with its tight-knit instrumentation, impeccably clean riffs, and dream-like vocal harmonies. In contrast, “Sleeping Ute” opens with explosions of sound; jangling guitar chords are sent spinning wildly, contraposed to crashing cymbals and booming drums. The difference between what I expected to hear and what I actually heard was night and day.

Shields is now streaming in its entirety at NPR’s website, and it’s quite clear that Grizzly Bear has grown much in their three year hibernation. But the traits that made the group stand out from the indie-rock multitude—the rustic-made-cool demeanour; the punchy drums that swim in perfect complement to the bass; Ed Droste’s voice, which carries too much emotional oomph for just one man—are very much still there. While much of Veckatimest seems cool and refined, Shields brims with energy, with tracks that jump between the frenetic and the anxious, irrespective of tempo.

From its inception as Droste’s solo project, Grizzly Bear has steadily ascended to its current status as a veritable household name. In one sense, Shields represents a zenith of this progression; whereas previous work was predominantly created by Droste, songwriting for this album was fully collaborative. Living up to their ursine moniker, the four retreated to the wild beauty that is the Catskills in New York to work on the new tracks. The result is a sonically rich compilation that plunges emotional depths—as well as a musical act that, after four albums spanning nearly a decade, continues to surprise.

Performing Sunday, Sept. 23th at 8:00p.m., L’Olympia (1004 Ste-Catherine Est.)

— Chris Liu

Beta Frontiers

Here’s the problem with writing on new artists: sometimes, the material just isn’t there. In the case of the Toronto-based electronic-act Beta Frontiers, this conundrum is compounded by the fact that the artist seems to be playing hard to get. The photos scattered throughout their Bandcamp profile feature a male figure whose face is perpetually covered. The other elements of these shots reveal an intriguing mix of influences, ranging from urban decay, to retro Tokyo, and finally to arcade games of decades past. The only clear picture one can draw is from the music itself—and what a picture it is.

Running throughout the tracks is a violence: barely contained, yet nevertheless, channelled into a frenzied mix of primal-techno majesty. Songs are made with swift, steady strokes. Relentless bass lines and hard, driving beats underscore synths that explode like laser lightshows. Notes often sound on the verge of being ripped apart at the seams. Irresistible hooks are looped in cascading cycles of ecstasy.

To date, Beta Frontiers have just one EP to their name; although the repertoire is accented by remixes of Fear of Men’s “Green Sea” and Major Lazer’s “Get Free”—both upgrades, in this writer’s view. Signed to Toronto indie label Daps Records alongside acts such as Phèdre, the attention received by Beta Frontiers has thus far been largely local. But with sizzling, neon-tinged tracks that practically scream to be heard, it’s unlikely that Beta Frontiers will be going away anytime soon.

Performing Thursday, Sept. 20th as part of a Daps Records showcase, beginning at 9:00p.m., CFC (6388 Saint-Hubert.)

— Chris Liu

Gotye

Singer-songwriter Wouter De Backer, commonly known by his stage name Gotye, is a POP act not to be missed. The Belgian-born Australian first gained international popularity with his 2011 single, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Almost a year after its Australian release, which featured a collaboration with New Zealand’s Kimbra, the track reached the number one spot on Bilboard’s Hot 100. It’s no wonder his songs appeal to a large audience—Gotye tackles everyday themes with an ear for catchy, honest lyrics. Tracks like “I Feel Better” brim with upbeat rhythms that capture the listener’s worries, while “State of the Art” is slightly darker, and demonstrates Gotye’s versatility. His ability to cover well-worn ground in pop compositions, while exploring both pleasure and pain, give his catchy sound surprising depth.

Gotye’s videos possess a certain creative and artistic quality that makes watching his music just as much of a pleasure as listening. With over 319 million hits on YouTube for “Somebody That I Used to Know” alone, he demonstrates that the human body and a little bit of paint go a long way towards capturing an audience. Animated videos such as “Hearts a Mess” from his second album mirror the macabre glint of his verses. Vocals in the piece cut through the instrumentals, with lyrics such as “Pick apart the pieces of your heart/Let me peer inside/Let me in where only your thoughts have been/Let me occupy your mind as you do mine,” transfixing listeners with an eerie melancholia.

Performing Friday, Sept. 21st at 6:00 p.m., Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine Est.)

— Kate Winbaum

Grimes

In 2009, a few citizens of Minneapolis were treated to a peculiar sight: a DIY houseboat, a straggle of wood and sweat, decked out in hand-drawn murals and awkwardly-fitting windows, drifting down the Mississippi. Its inhabitants were the young couple Claire Boucher and William Gratz—along with 20 pounds of potatoes and several chickens. The homestead was rounded out with a copy of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the romantic sojourn ended all too quickly, repeatedly stalled by engine troubles and the police. A few miles downstream is all that the pair accomplished, far short of their goal of New Orleans.

One may wonder whether the mental asylum ought to be their next destination. On the contrary, Boucher—who records under the name Grimes—has quickly ridden a wave of internet buzz in the past two years. Visions, released earlier this year, received the “Best New Music” commendation from the almighty gatekeeper to indie popularity, Pitchfork. Tracks feature Boucher’s signature falsetto, gliding on an ecclectic mix of deterministic synth staccatos. The result is a feathery, saccharine confectionery that is eminently infectious. Though Boucher’s pop sensibilities take prominence, influences are as varied as contemporary R&B, medieval music, and Korean pop.

Boucher is a former McGill student, but her restlessness, apparent in her tracks, didn’t allow her to stay long. Her brief forays into Russian Literature, then neuroscience, ended with her expulsion—a consequence of missing a year’s worth of courses in order to record. Perhaps no hard feelings remain; the music video for “Oblivion” features Molson Stadium and McGill’s football team. At three million views, giving Boucher the boot might have been the best outcome for both parties.

Performing Thursday, Sept. 20th at 8:00p.m., Club Soda (1225 St. Laurent.)

— Chris Liu

Tops

The music of TOPS inhabits a land of timelessness. The Montreal-based quartet is somehow able to condense vast periods of pop music history into tracks that serve catchy riffs and nostalgia in equal, hearty measures.

Lead singer Jane Penny’s woozy vocals are simultaneously airy and down-to-earth. This translucent quality juxtaposes the colour and vivacity brimming in the band’s tracks. The real talent of the group, however, is in delivering complex musical arrangements in a frank and simple manner, as if to shrug off the difficult task of songcraft with a ‘so what?’

“Rings of Saturn” is one song which perfectly exemplifies this sound. The track opens with a dense synth fog, after which tangy guitars and an enticing melody follows, the latter hauntingly carried by Penny. Most of the time the lyrics lie tantalizingly just out of reach of comprehension; the themes one does pick up are an intriguing mix of astronomy and romance. This nebulous quality does not detract, for one is already moonstruck.

The group’s debut album Tender Opposites was recorded at La Brique, a loft venue at Durocher and Beaubien, and released by local label Arbutus earlier in the year. Already, the four have benefited from online buzz, including praise from the influential tastemakers Gorilla vs. Bear. The attention is unlikely to detract from the intimacy and unpretentiousness that is at the heart of their sound—one that is sweet, piercing, but simply so.

Performing Friday, Sept. 21st at 9:30p.m., Cabaret du Mile-End (5240 avenue du Parc.)

— Chris Liu

Ben Howard

POP Montreal’s got a heaping of well-known acts, but the one I’m anticipating most is Ben Howard. Launching his debut album Every Kingdom less than a year ago, Howard’s cache of talent was quickly apparent.

As one of UK’s Mercury Prize winners for Album of the Year, Howard has already sold out shows across Europe and the UK, landing Howard a spot in the  renowned music festival SXSW—all within his first year of touring. If his ticket sales haven’t convinced you, his music will certainly do the trick. Using poetic lines resembling that of Bob Dylan accompanied by the angelic flavour of Joni Mitchell, Ben Howard has rekindled the world’s love affair with folk music. With singles such as “Keep Your Head Up,” he uses mountain-moving lyrics and instrumental build-up that will uplift any cynic. His raw vocals, orchestrated with the cello, percussion, accordion, ukulele, guitar, and bass are truly refreshing.

Though I have yet to see his act live, his recorded performances—including a chilling rendition of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” on Radio 1 Live Lounge—have left me feeling giddy at the opportunity. If you know what is good for you, I will see you in the front row.

Performing Sunday, Sept. 23rd at 8:00 p.m., Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine Est.)

— Meaghan Tardif-Bennett

St. Vincent

I first got word of St. Vincent, née Annie Clark, when she toured with Sufjan Stevens in 2006.  “Cool name, lady,” was my first thought, followed by “Man, Sufjan is so dope.” Several years later, and my vocabulary somewhat improved, I find myself excited at the prospect of seeing her solo show.

The Manhattan-based artist and Berklee College of Music dropout first strikes one as an English rose—short curls, large hazel eyes, and a delicate chin make for a disarming first impression. Upon hearing St. Vincent sing, however, one quickly realizes that there’s something lurking beneath the charmingly sweet surface. On the one hand, St. Vincent can channel sultry Diana Krall-like vocals; on the other, she is a capable instrumentalist, with a penchant for launching into solid prog-rock riffs. Clark’s tendency to accompany this sudden oscillation with changes in theme, from upbeat to macabre, was especially evident in her debut release Marry Me (which featured her former band mates from The Polyphonic Spree).

St. Vincent is now onto her third album, entitled Strange Mercy, and readily admits that her record owes a debt to Janet Jackson’s iconic Rhythm Nation. Although there’s less obvious thematic turnarounds than earlier albums, Strange Mercy keeps to the lyrically strong tradition of St. Vincent’s past work. Keep an ear out for more recent tracks, like the dream-pop drenched “Cruel,” as well as older, more musically dialectical pieces, like “Paris is Burning.” If you’re lucky, she might even drop an exquisitely clean Tom Waits cover.

Performing with David Byrne, Friday, Sept. 21st at 8p.m., Église St. Jean Baptiste (370 Rue Saint Jean.)

— Ilia Blinderman

Stars

Last we heard from Stars, they  launched their fifth album and confirmed that they would be taking a hiatus. This news was quickly followed by rumours that the homegrown Montreal group was breaking up.

The five-piece indie pop stalwarts were my introduction to everything I have come to love musically, so I was devastated. At the time, their work mirrored these concerns; filled with sorrow and mourning, as though they themselves did not know the fate of the band. Once they finished touring, they surprised everyone by taking part in a free secret show last fall. Admitting no more than 100 people, guests were taken by bus to a secluded part of the countryside to experience the band’s intimate performance. Having been one of the lucky few to witness this spectacle, Stars shattered any doubts I had about their rumoured separation. Instead, the experience left me anticipating their upcoming projects.

Finally, 15 months after they announced their hiatus, Stars are back with a new album and a vengeance. Their new release The North is a symbol of their newfound optimism. Temporarily recording in B.C., \ took this opportunity to experiment with their sound, incorporating rippling melodies that add an ephemeral air to their usual style. Tracks like “Hold On When You Get Love and Then Let Go When You Give It,” showcase their exceptional songwriting, piercing the heart and reminding us why they are a musical force to be reckoned with. All that to say: the Stars are out­—and they have never been so bright.

Performing Wednesday, Sept. 19th at 8:00p.m., La Tulipe (4530 Papineau Ave.)

— Meaghan Tardif-Bennett

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