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Best tunes of 2013: #28 John Grant “Pale green ghosts”

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I’ve said it before on these pages and I’ll likely say it again. The lot of the opening act is a tough gig.

At the risk of dating myself here*, I’ve been going to see live music for almost three decades now and pretty much for every show to which I’ve ever been, I’ve arrived early enough to catch the lion’s share of, if not the entire set by the opening act. And I’ve been rewarded with some excellent performances for my efforts. I’ve discovered way more great bands in this way than I have had to suffer through forgettable sets. In some cases, I’ve even walked away from shows having been more impressed by the opening act.**

My practice these days, as it has been ever since music streaming has become a thing, is actually to sample the opening artist’s wares in advance of the gig and if it sounds promising, give it a proper chance to sink in beforehand. Such was the case back in the early spring of 2014, when I purchased tickets to see Elbow playing at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. I made it a point to check out the latest album by the solo artist starting things off.

I had never heard tell of American singer-songwriter John Grant before, nor had I heard of the alternative rock band that he had fronted for over a decade called The Czars. He had just released his sophomore album the year before, recorded with one half of electronic duo GusGus, it was apparently a bit of a departure from his first solo album. The opening track is of the same name as the album title and is the stark wake up call one would think it might be to long-time listeners.

“Pale green ghosts must take great care,
Release themselves into the air
Reminding me that I must be aware”

It is six minutes of rumbling tribal beats run through all kinds of digital distortion and augmented by bleats of synthesized horns blown by heartless robots. It is suffocating and intense and harrowing. And through it all is jaunty John Grant singing breathlessly and with purpose but in that whiplash-inducing voice that is inescapable and that commands such a presence. What a voice indeed.

*It’s probably too late.

**I made a playlist a couple of years ago inspired by all the great opening acts I’ve seen.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2013 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2013: #29 Low “Just make it stop”

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In 2013, Duluth, Minnesota-based indie rock act, Low, celebrated their twentieth anniversary as a group by releasing their 10th studio album, “The invisible way”. The trio of Alan Sparhawk (guitars/vocals), Mimi Parker (drums/vocals), and Steve Garrington (bass) enlisted the production help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for this outing. Apparently, though, the album didn’t stray too far from the group’s normal template of gentle, minimalist, beautiful tones. I say “apparently” because this is the album for which I first took notice of the group and embraced them. I gave “The invisible way” a thorough run through, ensuring they were thus on my radar for future releases but not going so far as to travel too far down their back catalogue road.

According to Sparhawk, the creative leader of the group, the only glaring differences between this album and the ones that came before was the addition of a lot more piano work and the fact that his partner in crime, Mimi Parker, shifts from her usual support role to take over lead vocals on five of the album’s tracks. Today’s tune, “Just make it stop”, is an example of one of these tracks.

“If I could just make it stop
Breaking my heart
Get out of the way
If I could just make it stop”

The second tune to be teased in advance of the album’s release is mostly driven by Parker’s delicate voice and her just as gentle brushing on the drums but about halfway through, we do get the addition of those aforementioned keys and a bit of bass muscle. Indeed, the song almost creeps into upbeat territory. But let’s stress the word “almost” here. Let’s not get too crazy because this is Low we are talking about, the band that quite possible inspired the term ‘slowcore’. I won’t belabour this, though. Just press play on the video below and let Parker haunt you too.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2013 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2013: #30 Arcade Fire “Here comes the night time”

#29 >>

For all those fellow Canadians out there, I want to wish each and everyone of you a real “Happy Canada day”!

And I mean that truly.

It’s been a tough two-plus years. Not just here, but everywhere, I know, and though Canada day has always been a big celebration here, whether or not we deserve it, this year, I think, we do. My own celebration will involve spending time with the one person in the world that means the most to me but I’d also like to observe it here, in a tiny way, on these pages. And what better way than to start up a new list and to kick it off with a great tune by a great Canadian band.

By 2013, the indie rock collective from Montreal (known as Arcade Fire) had already released three groundbreaking albums, the last actually landing the band a surprise turn at the top of the Grammy podium for best album for 2010’s “The suburbs”, and now, they were due for something new. The question was, what would it sound like and could it possibly top what we’d already heard from a band that everyone seemed to be looking to for innovation.

We finally started to get hints of what might be coming in the summer of 2013, as cryptic street art incorporating the title of the forthcoming album started to appear around the world. The campaign was admittedly a bit much but it was effective and though the band’s wishes that attendees at their ensuing tour stops dress up in costume was widely criticized, you can’t fault the band for trying to rouse their fans from complacency. Arcade Fire has always been earnest and this was possibly their pinnacle, if not their most successful endeavour.

“Reflektor” saw contributions from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, as well Mr. David Bowie, and for all its expectations, it didn’t really suffer too badly at the hands of the critics. It saw the release of five singles, each of them big and epic and completely Arcade Fire (if you can excuse me using their name as an adjective), but for me the best track on an album that was great, yet still seemed to pale in the shadow of the previous three, was the disco and rara-inspired “Here comes the night time”.

This track actually appears as two different versions, each on a separate disc of the double album, but I am definitely more for the first part, which was apparently written and recorded second. It truly encapsulates what the band were aiming for when they were looking to make music that multi-instrumentalist Regjne Chassagne would dance to. Like the rest of the album, the sound was hugely influenced by the band’s visit to Haiti, the country from which her parents originally emigrated to Canada. Indeed, this track in particular was written about that country’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, a dangerous city at the best of times but one that becomes lethal at night due to the lack of electricity and the relative safety of unnatural lighting.

“When the sun goes down, you head inside
‘Cause the lights don’t work
Yeah, nothing works, they say you don’t mind”

Six minutes of Caribbean sounds funnelled through machines and synthesizers and other computer gadgetry. It wavers and warbles between frenetic beats and gliding vibes. It marches and dances and cavorts, with feathers and masks and streamers, shades of carnival lights and energy, while its ringmasters, Win and Regine, conduct you safely through the streets of the Haitian capital on an epic journey to bliss and magic.

So go on out and celebrate!

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2013 list, click here.