Saturday, 23 February 2013

Saturday Spotlight: Slow Club

As seems to be the case with many of my favorite artists, I came across Slow Club entirely by accident. Slow Club, an English indie folk-rock duo comprised of Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson, has been compared to Fleetwood Mac and The White Stripes - the latter comparison has emerged from the fact that Taylor frequently plays drums and Watson frequently plays guitar. (They're not romantically involved, as far as I know, which seems to add to their chemistry rather than detract from it.)

In spring of last year, I was watching a live performance by British band The Clientele on the YouTube channel Bandstand Busking and, once the video was over, clicked on one of the links on the side. It led to this video from the same series, a performance of Slow Club's song "It Doesn't Have To Be Beautiful."

Recorded in 2009, the video led me to seek out the band's debut record, Yeah So, released that same year. I really enjoyed the album; everything that I'd liked about the video I watched - the duo's energy, their catchy melodies and lyrics that were charming but not overly sentimental - Yeah So had in spades. My first impressions of the band were reaffirmed as soon as I heard the album's opening track, the wonderful "When I Go."

Slow Club also put out a Christmas EP in 2009 called Christmas, Thanks for Nothing. Despite its pessimistic title, the record featured some festive covers and excellent originals, the best of which was the lovely "Christmas TV."

I then checked out the group's second album Paradise, released only the year before, and what had been a minor infatuation became a serious crush. Slow Club seemed to have grown by leaps and bounds within the short span of two years. "Where I'm Waking" in particular paired one of the best lyrical come-ons in recent memory - "I can see you looking at me / You've got the brains, I've got the body" with an infectious chorus and joyous instrumentation.

If I had come across the band earlier, Paradise would have been a definite contender for my top 10 records of 2011. I felt like Paradise transcended Slow Club's 'indie folk-rock' label with its incorporation of many unusual sonic elements, the burst of saxophone halfway through "Hackney Marsh" and the handclaps and electronic beats in "You, Earth or Ash" among them.

It appears that Taylor and Watson are in the process of recording a new album, and I can honestly say it's one of my most anticipated releases of 2013. How I came across Slow Club is a testament, I think, to the important role the internet plays in discovering bands and musicians one probably wouldn't have come across any other way.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #5

5. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas

Few artists had more to prove this year than did Leonard Cohen. Old Ideas comes after a three-year world tour during which Cohen's songs became as popular as ever and "Hallelujah" grew to be the de rigeur song for everything from awards shows to funerals. When a new album was announced, it seemed a great deal more people were interested than there would have been four or five years ago.
Old Ideas takes all this into consideration while deftly dodging the label of "victory lap record" that seems inevitable for someone of Cohen's age. Wry, moving and at times unexpectedly funny, it's a record that reaffirms Cohen's brilliance as a songwriter while standing as a great record in its own right. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Live Review: New Music Festival (February 2nd 2013)

New Music Festival
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Centennial Concert Hall
February 2nd 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The 2013 New Music Festival, honouring minimalist composer Steve Reich, ended on a triumphant note with a concert of passionate, transformative music reaffirming the importance and vitality of life.

The evening began with the world premiere of Vincent Ho’s From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey, a piece written for legendary Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. The unveiling of From Darkness to Light marked the second time the Composer-in-Residence for the WSO and Glennie have collaborated on a world premiere of his work, and expectations were accordingly high. Ho, Glennie and the WSO, conducted masterfully by Alexander Micklethwaite, did not disappoint.

Ho was inspired to write the highly emotional piece after the death of his friend, artist Luc Leestemaker. During his introduction Saturday night, Ho noted that several months after Leestemaker’s death from cancer, the composer and his wife welcomed a baby daughter into the world, and this movement from death to birth, from sadness to hope, mirrored the work’s emotional arc.

From Darkness to Light began quietly and calmly with gentle lead-in by Glennie, who, surrounded by a variety of drums and other percussion instruments, created a focal point on the stage. Her drums and xylophones softly and steadily grew in intensity and tempo until a moment where, amid the orchestra’s persistent rustling of sheet music and high string notes, Glennie let out a single anguished cry of “No!”

Ho’s technique brilliantly evoked the moment when a cancer patient first learns of their diagnosis and finds themselves unable to accept their condition. Glennie and the orchestra then leapt into a visceral, dramatic section, mesmerizing the audience with their impassioned and dynamic playing.

As the piece came towards its conclusion, paintings by Leestemaker began to appear on a screen at the back of the stage, accompanied by the hopeful and stirring voices of cellos and violins. Glennie stepped forward to a marimba and, bathed in a silvery glow, began to play her own meditative composition, “A Little Prayer.”

As she paused to let the last few vibrations of the instrument dissolve, it seemed as if the entire packed concert hall was engaged in one single, potent moment of silence shared with her.

The New Music Festival audience rewarded the artists with a sustained and heartfelt standing ovation as many listeners fought back tears, overwhelmed by the powerful emotions of the piece.

Coming after the unqualified success of Ho’s work, it seemed almost impossible that Reich’s The Desert Music, performed in collaboration with The Winnipeg Singers, could have half the same impact – and yet the piece, inspired by the American poet William Carlos Williams, was equally as riveting and emotionally intense.

A group of string players, forming a half-circle around Micklethwaite’s podium, began the composition with a comforting, folk-influenced motif. The Winnipeg Singers soon joined in, delivering excerpts from Williams’ poetry in beautiful and crystal-clear tones; the recurring statement “man must change or perish” gave the choir’s melodies a dark, even chilling undercurrent.

Despite having been written in the 1980s, Reich’s work felt deeply moving and remarkably prescient. The WSO’s choice to perform this particular piece proved a fitting and timely reflection on humanity’s most acute dilemmas in the 21st century. Their masterful rendition of the piece met with the approval of its composer, who came up on stage to receive enthusiastic accolades from the audience.
As the closing piece of the concert series, The Desert Music was a brilliant reminder of the relevant, challenging and inspirational role the festival plays in the artistic life of our city.

Live Review: Magellan Ensemble (January 5th 2013)

Magellan Ensemble
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
January 5th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

January 5th saw Virtuosi Concerts present to its audience the much-anticipated Magellan Ensemble. The Montreal-based quartet – Olivier Thouin on violin, Yukari Cousineau on viola, Yegor Dyachkov on cello and Jean Saulnier on piano – brought a singular level of intensity and passion to the Eckhardt-Grammate Hall.

Schubert’s Allegro from the String Trio in B-flat major, D. 471, performed by Thouin, Cousineau and Dyachkov, provided a light and wonderful prelude to the works presented by the full quartet; it immediately demonstrated the strings’ deft touch and remarkable synchronization.

Saulnier joined his colleagues for Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60, a four-movement work inspired in part by the composer’s unrequited love for Clara Schumann. The Allegro non troppo began with a mournful swell of strings backed by a constant atonal backdrop of the piano before it swept the audience away in its sheer passion and intensity and ending on a quiet, desolate note. Scherzo – Allegro was romantic and insistent, with sparkling piano riffs by Saulnier and intricate work by Cousineau. The following Andante had each player demonstrating their individual skill before coming together in a divine blend of moods and textures accented by gentle pizzicato.

The spell cast over the audience continued into the Finale – Allegro comodo, where one could hear a pin drop as a series of rounds quietly rose and fell then broke into a frenzied rhythm. Saulnier’s flowing piano work urged his fellow players on towards the piece’s triumphant final notes, after which the audience rewarded the quartet with the first sustained ovation of the night.

Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45 took an already memorable event to a new level. Where Brahms’ piece had worked in contrasts, Faure’s piece developed a single musical idea over the course of its four movements. Allegro molto moderato opened with fiery piano chords before settling into a more romantic middle section accentuated by brief tense flashes of viola. Allegro molto demonstrated Saulnier’s masterful technique, navigating a series of high register scales with ease. Allegro non troppo was quieter and even more beautiful; Saulnier’s piano, backed by lush strings, brought to mind the church bells of a faraway village. The movement concluded with gentle fingerwork that led into the powerful opening notes of the Allegro molto, in which the quartet, led on by Thouin’s violin, grew in intensity and speed before a dazzling, fiery round of pizzicato brought the piece to a close and the audience to their feet. Unfortunately, despite the standing ovation, no encore was offered. One more piece, no matter how short, would have made an already marvelous program even more satisfying.

Dyachkov’s enlightening comments during the performance enriched the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the program. The concert was recorded by CBC Radio 2 to be broadcast as part of their classical music offering. Virtuosi Concerts has once again succeeded in bringing to their patrons a truly superb degree of artistry.

Update 14/06/13: You can listen to CBC Radio 2's recording of this concert here.