Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #3 Jenny Lewis – Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Jenny Lewis and her band and a sea of umbrellas at Bluesfest 2014

Artist: Jenny Lewis
When: Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
Where: River Stage at 7:00pm
Context: Another of the pitfalls of outdoor music festivals is inclement weather. Of course, Ottawa in July is particularly fun for the wild weather and it just seems to get more unsettled as the years roll on. I’ve weathered more than a couple storms in the middle of concert crowds, whether during sets or waiting for them to begin. It’s gotten so that dollar store ponchos have become a regular fixture in my pack whenever I head out to a festival. Others bring umbrellas and to them I say: “Leave them at home!” They often blow open and break in strong winds and they block the views of anyone unfortunate enough to be behind you.

But enough of that.

Back on the Tuesday night of the 2014 edition of Bluesfest, the skies opened up, exactly as forecast, and drenched the diehards awaiting the arrival of indie singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis. The rain was such that they delayed of the start of her 7pm set and it just seemed to get worse and worse, until the rain seemed endless and we started to think that the River stage would be washed away, along with our hopes of seeing Jenny Lewis live. She finally did go on at 7:40, leaving only twenty minutes remaining of her originally scheduled set. I stuck it out because I’d been following her since her days with Rilo Kiley and had enjoyed quite a bit of her solo work. And who knew if she’d ever make it back to Ottawa?

Jenny Lewis and her band only performed a total of six songs: a couple of Rilo Kiley tracks, a couple of tracks from her album with the Watson Twins, and the brand new single off her upcoming album, “Just one of the guys” (see full list below). She came out wearing a colourful outfit (similar to that shown on the aforementioned new album cover), playing a rainbow coloured acoustic guitar, and projecting a like mannered disposition. For the final song, “Acid tongue”, her backing band, dressed in whites and blacks, gathered behind her, choir-style to sing backup, while she serenaded us quietly on her acoustic guitar. It was a lovely set and I’m grateful that we got the chance to see her, even though it was only a short performance, but one can’t help wonder what else she would have played had the rain not altered the schedule.

Afterwards, wandering away from the stage, I overheard Lawrence Gowan (!) on one of the main stages cracking a lame joke about double rainbows. I looked up and sure enough, there was a magnificent rainbow that again matched Lewis’s garb and guitar and that seemed to end at the foot of the River Stage on which she had just performed. Coincidence?

Rain parkas and umbrellas
Jenny Lewis
Natalie Prass and Megan McCormick
Jenny Lewis, Macey Taylor, and Joshua Adams
Jenny Lewis and her rainbow guitar
The rainbow ends at the River Stage

Just One of the Guys
Silver Lining (Rilo Kiley song)
Rise Up With Fists!!
You Are What You Love
A Man/Me/Then Jim (Rilo Kiley song)
Acid Tongue

Best albums of 1989: #2 Nine Inch Nails “Pretty hate machine”

I don’t remember the exact date. It was probably in the spring of 1990, roughly six or seven months after the album’s release. However, I remember exactly what I was doing and what led to my very first listen to Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, “Pretty hate machine”.

Before I get to that story, though, I just want to clarify a fact that I’ve not been completely clear on to date. I’ve referred to a friend in a few previous posts that I’ve not yet named, the one who got me into my favourite band of the early to mid 1990s, The Wonder Stuff (who incidentally appeared at number five on this list). Elliott, though, was actually more than a friend. He was a ‘foster brother’ who lived with our family for a few years during my teen years. When he moved in, he was into aggressive thrash metal so The Wonder Stuff’s “Eight legged groove machine” was a weird piece in his collection. Gradually, his tastes started to widen and together we really got into ‘alternative’ music together and it was with him that I stayed up to watch and record videos off MuchMusic’s CityLimits on Friday nights.

It was also Elliott that handed me a cassette tape copy of “Pretty hate machine” at exactly the right moment. I’m not sure what had put me in a mood that day but I was deep in the profundity of teen depression and angst and had decided to go out for a night time walk. “Pretty hate machine” was offered and strongly suggested over whatever it was I was planning on slipping into my Sony Sports Walkman and for that I will always be eternally grateful to Elliott. The solitary knock that critics (including Trent Reznor himself) have been able to hang on the album is that it is dark and angry, almost to the point of silliness, but it fit my mood perfectly that night.

Trent Reznor wrote most of the songs and recorded demos of them during his downtime while working at a recording studio. He then recorded the whole album himself, rather than hiring musicians, using synthesizers and a number of samples. (Indeed, he remained the only official member of Nine Inch Nails for many years, only adding Atticus Ross in 2016.) “Pretty hate machine” fused the synth rock of bands like Depeche Mode with the aggressive inhumanity of Industrial rock. It was my own gateway to other Industrial bands like Ministry and Nitzer Ebb and probably was for a host of other people. It sold very well for an independent release and was eventually certified triple platinum.

“Pretty hate machine” is to this day my very favourite Nine Inch Nails release, every song on it is a classic for me. It was difficult choosing just three picks to share with you but I have managed. Enjoy the throwback rage out today.

”Down in it”: “I was up above it. I was up above it. Now I’m down in it.” We’re never quite sure what ‘it’ was that Reznor was above and down in but we were right there with him. I was anyways. This was the first official single released by the band and was apparently the first song Reznor ever wrote. This might explain the simplistic lyrics and the adaptation and cooption of childhood nursery rhymes within. The song itself is quite dark though, explosive and rat-a-tat percussion and hiss boom rah rah samples, like a crowd roaring while Reznor alternates between rapping and rhyming and snarling. It’s all like a boiling pot of water or maybe even molten lava (if you want to delve into hyperbole) just at the edge, all threatening to break over the top into violence and disastrous mess.

”Something I can never have”: I loved this epic six minute ballad long before it was used to infamy on the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack. The different levels of synth washes sounding like some abandoned, disused industrial plant, suddenly sprung into action and from somewhere deep within, lilts a lonely haunting piano riff, that varies and dances in on the wind and grows louder and quieter by chance and mood. “In this place it seems like such a shame, though it all looks different now, I know it’s still the same. Everywhere I look you’re all I see, just a fading f*cking reminder of who I used to be.” I definitely latched onto this song and its lyrics back in my self-deprecating and moping days as a teen and this particular lyric, with its uncompromising and unapologetic f-bomb, always got me going and singing along. Even now, with my backwards facing lense, I find this a beautiful and haunting track about the anger and longing of lost love.

”Head like a hole”: Looking at that still from the video below, I am reminded of my university friends Leigh and Aliya, who had that very image up on their shared residence bedroom wall, a poster purchased from an Imaginus fair. I watched that music video so many times, back in the day, constantly rewinding and replaying the video cassette tape I had it recorded on. Simply based on the fact that “Head like a hole” was track one on “Pretty hate machine” and I listened to the album in full as my introduction to Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, this song was my first exposure to and still my favourite track by this artist. The rage, the samples, the beat, the screaming. This was where my flirtation with industrial music began. I still remember this being played, at my request, at a CFNY video dance party at my high school and some teen girl, whose name I can’t recall, being incredulous that this was the type of music to which I would listen. I didn’t care at all at the time. I was too busy dancing my ass off.

Check back next Monday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Automatic”
9. Galaxie 500 “On fire”
8. The Beautiful South  “Welcome to The Beautiful South”
7. The Grapes of Wrath “Now and again”
6. New Model Army “Thunder and consolation”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Hup”
4. Pixies “Doolittle”
3. The Cure “Disintegration”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2012: #25 Sea Wolf “Priscilla”

<< #26    |    #24 >>

Sea Wolf is an Los Angeles-based indie rock act that is mainly the vehicle for the songwriting of Alex Brown Church. He started the project in 2003 when the songs he was working on while part of the band Irving didn’t fit their sound. In 2012, he released “Old world romance”, the third full-length album to be produced using the Sea Wolf name, and this following on the heels of two previous, relatively successful albums: 2007’s “Leaves on the river” and 2009’s “White water, white bloom”.

As I mentioned above, Sea Wolf is mainly Church’s project and yet “Old world romance” is the first of his albums that was completed without the help of enlisted musicians, recorded all by himself. But instead of feeling like a basement (or living room) DIY project, the album has a crisper and cleaner sounding production than its predecessors and because he used a drum machine rather than a live timekeeper, some of the organic sound has been dispensed with, in favour of a more mechanical effect. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it was this inner struggle that reverberates throughout the album between the traditional, folk stylings and the modern and electronic sounds that caught my attention in the first place. It’s almost a reflection of the man versus nature themes that are hinted at on the album’s cover and are prevalent in the naturalistic novels of Jack London . Yes, in case you Jack London fans were wondering, the band’s name, Sea Wolf, was taken from the novel of the same name.

“Priscilla” is my favourite track on the album. When I first listened to it, it drummed up memories of listening to songs like “Sonnet” and “This time” of The Verve’s “Urban hymns” for the first time. Not necessarily the vocal work, though Church does sound a bit a cross between Richard Ashcroft and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, but there is an atmospheric feel to it, naturalistic, much like The Verve’s dense ballads, it makes for heady chill out music. Starting off with reverb guitars that sound like a distress call or echoing birds calling over the bay, then, the drum machine beats crash in like waves and acoustic guitar strumming layers in with synth string washes, all haunting and chilling cold ocean breeze. Watch out. There’s a storm brewing here. The waves are picking up and smashing and pounding the stony shore. Interesting, then, that it’s a song about a relationship on the rocks.

“So Priscilla, this is important
Time to tell us this is
No goodbyes and no time for mourning
Now we’ll see what this love is for.”


For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.