Pop Montreal Review: Plants & Animals & Girls, oh my!
I'd like to preamble the locus of my post-Pop Mtl reflections by asserting that I am a big fan of both the Parc Avenue-dwelling Plants and Animals and San Francisco's classic rock-infused Girls. The proceeding ramblings and comparisons are in no way an indication of my preference of one over another, but rather a burgeoning realization that I'm becoming increasingly particular about live shows. First, a little bit about why these were my two must-see shows at this year's Pop MontrÃ©al, and the two albums that won me over.
Parc Avenue was released by Plants and Animals in 2008 and is their first album. It defined the sounds of that summer for me: a kind of sun-baked folksy music that could easily have been conjured up after a day walking around Jeanne-Mance park. Many of the tracks felt like tryptic paintings, as they changed focus seamlessly from one moment to the next (it's also no surprise some of the tracks are as long as seven minutes). Its reminiscent of the change you feel from Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy, only Plants and Animals reach near-symphonic heights.
Broken Dreams Club is the middle of Girls' recent albums (they just released their third in three years) and the shortest (it's an EP with six tracks). It is also the epitome of the latest nostalgic turn indie music has been taking. Drawing from the sounds of the 50s and 60s, Christopher Owens and Chet "JR" White forego the feel-good norm of the era and instead instill their tracks with haunting and beautiful melodies. Their first and last albums are excellent (garnering a 9.1 and 9.3, respectively, from Pitchfork), but I keep coming back to the superbly cohesive mood between The Oh So Protective One and Carolina.
Both these bands have the sound and the talent to make a live show spectacular, but there are sometimes elements out of their control that can take that away. And certainly, when it comes to Pop MontrÃ©al, Plants and Animals have the upper hand. This is their home, and control is an option. They played at Breakglass Studios just north of Little Italy: a small, cramped and (on Saturday) extremely humid venue. It's a studio after all, and they were being recorded. Yet, despite waiting in a three-story staircase forty minutes past opening time, and some unneeded smelly armpit (you know who you are), when Warren Spicer started singing, I forgot how terribly uncomfortable I was. The show was labeled as an intimate evening with P&A and that's certainly what we were given. The proximity to the band added to their warm output. Friends of the band, including one of the Barr Brothers who played piano, came and went throughout the set to give a hand or a voice when needed. They played some old tunes, some covers (including a very warmly received rendition of Wolf Parade's I'll Believe in Anything), and plenty of new unreleased material that Warren kept calling "barbecue songs". These last point to a new direction for P&A that delves deeper into some Southern folk rock.
What stood out the most was the sound: each lyric, each key, each strum, was clearly heard.
Compare this to Theatre Corona on Sunday night: by all rights a beautifully expansive venue with lots of standing room. Unfortunately, like many venues of its breadth, bass and volume rule. This is no problem for typically raucous acts (like opener Nobunny, who was a little too much Buffalo Bill does Iggy Pop), but completely fails a band like Girls. On many of their most memorable songs, I strained to hear the loneliness told in the lyric, or the light pop synthesized backdrop. Instead, the warbling and droning of the bass, and one too many feedback screeches, drowned out much of what makes Girls one of the best bands of recent years. And had I only attended this show over the weekend, I may have just confused my disappointment with an over-dependence on the crystal clear studio-enhanced production values of albums... but P&S at Breakglass Studios led me to believe there could be a higher standard for acoustic clarity in live performances. I certainly couldn't fault the band: their set list was good, and Owens is known to be too demure to really give anything more in terms of performance. He barely said anything more than a simple "Thanks" between songs. But that's standard fare from what I've heard, and hardly matters if the music is there: and it was... suffocating under a pillow.
So, my lesson learned from Pop MontrÃ©al's 10th Anniversary may be that I will become more aware, and more picky, with the proper coupling of band and venue in the future. Because there's no greater shame than a fantastic band executing an okay show.
Plants and Animals iPhone image courtesy Vanessa Clarke. Girls image courtesy L.P. Maurice, Pop Montreal.