Wolf Alice: From Glastonbury To Adelaide Hall, The Bus Keeps Rolling

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(Hey folks, here is the link to my interview with Wolf Alice in its proper published form, with all the cool pictures from Sugar Beach & Adelaide Hall. I’m also leaving the text here on the blog, but it looks much better at edge.ca. Hope You enjoy!)

In the atrium of the Corus Entertainment building at Sugar Beach in Toronto, there is a three story slide that Wolf Alice guitarist Joff Oddie and bassist Theo Ellis have decided to try and climb… together. It’s an odd take on the myth of Sisyphus, where in place of the rock, they shove each other up the hill. Upon failure, they both tumble out of the slide atop each other. Oddie springs up and exclaims “and that is how babies are made.”

It really isn’t surprising to see them blowing off steam in a spectacle of childish glee. After all, they’ve just disembarked for a quick visit to 102.1 The Edge after a twelve hour bus ride from New York. Following their Toronto show at Adelaide Hall, they will undertake a fourteen hour haul to Minneapolis for another gig.

Wolf Alice has been moving at a dizzying pace for months now, without a day off. A show at The Drake in Toronto this March, an album release and an epic performance at Glastonbury this past June, strung between many other appearances, keeps the bus rolling. The need for a good laugh seems paramount.

The interview itself begins with Ellis mockingly suggesting “He doesn’t want to talk to me. I’m the bass player. He wants to talk to Ellie… or Alice!” It’s a moment with a pure facetious tone as he explains how some people still seem to think that the “Alice” in the band name is a person on stage. Of course, there is no “Alice” just like there is no “Pink” in Pink Floyd. “Kid calls me Alice and I just want to…” It’s a throwaway line filled with deadpan dark humour from a guy who has glitter under his eyes where heavy bags should be.

The contrast fits well with the band that, less than two weeks before Adelaide Hall’s 500 capacity venue, they were playing Brixton Academy to 5000. Ellis admits “It has been weird. Just before Pawtucket (Rhode Island), the last show was our headline London (UK) show. There is definitely a difference… It wasn’t a million people, but… it’s quite cool, quite exciting, to do it (large and small venues) like that.” As he finishes the sentence, Ellie Roswell (vocals/guitar) and Joel Amey (drums/vocals) enter the room.

For the uninitiated, Wolf Alice released their debut My Love Is Cool at the beginning of summer. They have had critics comparing them to bands ranging from ‘grunge’ to ‘shoegaze’ and all points in between. Yet stylistically, the comparisons don’t cover it. Roswell comments, “When we went into the recording studio, we didn’t have a list of bands we wanted to replicate. But we do listen to Queens of The Stone Age, whatever Jack White does, Radiohead… who we always forget to mention. And they’re a big influence.”

My Love Is Cool tends to cover themes from dark desperation to depression, which the band also brings out when doing covers at some of their shows. Roswell grins at the observation. “I think it’s fun to play something as far from you as possible and sometimes it’s a “cheer people up” song. It’s quite cool to see how dark you can make it. Like the One Direction song (“Steal My Girl”). It’s obviously about his girlfriend but when you make it dark, the lyrics come out as possessive and nasty.” Drummer/vocalist Joel Amey elaborates “It is a cool thing to explore. Like with Sting’s (The Police) “Every Breath You Take.” Everybody thinks it’s a love song about a guy and his girl… but it’s twisted… it’s about a guy watching (obsessing about) her. That subversiveness is fun to play with.”

Still, I’m looking at the band and I can’t help wondering what the hell they do to break the monotony of being on the road. They offer quips to the question. There is an awkward exchange involving fully clothed, separate bed, band bonding over episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Another about the movie Saw not enhancing song writing and then a nod to touring mates Drenge as the “weirdest and nicest guys in the world.” But, never having been in a touring rock band, I leave the interview confused as to how Wolf Alice can bring their “A Game” for every show. That thought stays with me as I arrive at Adelaide Hall later that evening.

It takes all of thirty seconds for those questions about monotony and energy levels on the road to be answered. The venue might be small, but the audience is loud, and from the opening chords of “Your Love’s Whore”, band and patrons alike show their enthusiasm for one another. With just a few instruments, a sound system and lights, Wolf Alice emerges with full rock star swagger. The show they put on is electric.

Joff Oddie’s fingers are up and down the neck of his Fender Jaguar, only interrupted on the occasions he flips over to a keyboard and then back to guitar. Joel Amey puts down the steady beat even when he takes the lead vocals on “Swallowtail.” Theo Ellis is all over the stage with the bass, whipping fans into frenzy as he leaps atop the kick drum in full ‘rock out’ pose. Ellie Roswell balances between the ethereal vocal moments of “Silk” and the explosiveness of “You’re A Germ.” While I hadn’t noticed the Radiohead influence on My Love Is Cool, hearing it performed live makes it all become clear. Nuances are flushed out and the show as a whole is proof that this band has surpassed the tag of “next big thing” and has become “the band to see.”

As the final encore ends with “Smiling Mona Lisa”, there is a mutual admiration thing going on with the band thanking the audience, and the crowd wanting more. A promise to return soon is given, and people disperse with wide grins. Driving home, I realize that to Wolf Alice, being on the road in a bus is a small price to pay for the opportunity to have a great night playing their music to appreciative fans.

 

A cabbage rolls across the stage and the band played on… or Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen

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(True story – an over enthusiastic fan once rolled a cabbage across the stage as Teenage Fanclub played “The Cabbage” during a tour of Japan. Guess they didn’t get the heartbreaking translation of that particular tune.)

On the heels of a very successful Bandwagonesqe and a huge Saturday Night Live appearance Teenage Fanclub released Thirteen. It was rich with harmonies, had awesome songs, and Kurt Cobain was quoted as calling the Fannies the “Best Band in the World.” So with all that is it any surprise that in October 1993 the band that took in the award for Spin’s #1 Record of 1991 faced a backlash from critics. Thirteen wasn’t just disliked by rock writers, it was destroyed.

It didn’t make sense to me then, and in retrospect most critics have turned their opinion around to treat it more like a classic; one that I have always thought wasn’t just a great record, but ultimately stands of one of my favourite all time albums. It has the pop sensibilities of Big Star, the guitar effects of the “shoegaze” era and the driving bass of the 90’s alt rock period. It was a full package record that could be comical (“Commercial Alternative”) one moment and heartbreaking (“The Cabbage”) another.

So what are the vinyl options?

Limited…

The original 1993 pressing was only done for audiences in the UK and Europe on standard black vinyl. Used copies can be found for around $30.00 dollars and up. Actually I saw an autographed copy for about a $100, but once you add shipping… well… it’s a little more than most of us would spend.

On the other hand, Thirteen was remastered and reissued in 2011 for US fans by Org Music. The first batch was 180 gram white vinyl while everything after was 180 gram black wax. So far I have yet to see any complaints about sound while trolling the internet audiophile sights. Prices start around $30 but some resellers are jacking prices up as availability has begun to dwindle.

Really, Teenage Fanclub created a body of work that is power-pop bliss and Thirteen is a perfect example of a genre defining record that really deserves more respect than it received. You really should give it a listen.

The Emotional Depth of Flanging and Reverb or Ride –OX4

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There was a time before the 90’s wave of Grunge and Brit-Pop when a generation of music geeks had their collective consciousness turned towards the sounds of a UK movement dubbed “shoegaze.” Known for “wall of sound” like buzz and a variety of guitar effects it was the best possible escape for people tired of pop and hair metal but still loved loud electric guitar as the driver behind the tunes.

Ride was one of the best of the era with their own brand of songs crossed between My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths and even American avant-garde noise rockers Sonic Youth. At the beginning what attracted people to the band was the menagerie of influence pooled together under a banner of rock attitude and loud experimentation.

Unlike classic rock bands that would build a song around a guitar riff using it for the more climatic moments, Ride would use a riff like a wave over the song and change its very dynamic. If you listen to “Like A Daydream” even when the songs driving force is held back during the lyrical sequence, the guitar riff is still present as the basis for the rhythm. What changes is the tone and power with which it is played. The song itself gains more emotional resonance by the riff coasting for the duration rather than any one specific moment. At their best, this is exactly how Ride operated, a lyric of longing surrounded by shimmering guitar lines that buzz meaning with flanging and reverb.

Unfortunately, their existence was a brief eight years and it ended with internal disagreements and some half hearted attempt to go in a more ‘commercial’ direction. Some critics have claimed they fell flat looking for a more Brit-Pop sound, but honestly, after reading some of their more recent interviews, it sounds more like they just lost the motivation to be a band.

Still Record Store Day 2015 was a reminder of what brilliant music they did put out back in the day, with the vinyl re-issue of OX4: The Best Of. Three editions were released on April 18th in three major markets. The UK and Europe saw 500 copies each printed in red translucent vinyl while the North American market printed an additional 5000 copies of the same. As of last week when I was visiting record stores in Toronto I still saw copies around at the regular RSD prices.

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On a cooler note, Ride have worked out all their differences, are back together and currently touring. They’ll be hitting the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on June 2nd and are being presented by 102.1 The Edge/Spirit Of Radio.

Like Riding A Rollercoaster Blindfolded… or Crocodiles – Boys

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A touch of psychedelia, a smidge of shoegaze and sounding like they spent a whole lot of time in a garage playing covers of The Shondells is the basic Crocodiles recipe. So the real question, if one dares to ask, is this any different from the plethora of bands also trying to mine this vein?

Well, yes and no…

Heading into summer lets use baseball as an analogy. Major League Baseball has thirty teams all trying to attain a single goal – win the World Series. There are a lot of both good and bad teams that resemble one another but only the best really stand out while the rest are merely background noise until the playoffs arrive.

The Crocodiles are contenders.

Many bands have similar sounds but the pure catchiness and fun they exude is what keeps bringing me back for more. Hell, if they hired Rick Rubin to produce they would likely end up sounding like The Cult during the Electric era.

As it is, their brand of ‘riff-riding’ gives them a different team from others. They’re not as angry or skillful as Detroit’s Dirtbombs and they’re not as trippy as California’s Best Coast, but they carry your attention down the stretch.

“Crybaby Demon” starts things off with a “She Sells Santuary” guitar intro that takes a left turn towards the Happy Mondays. “Do The Void” plays with a 90’s alt-rock sludge guitar than breaks towards a early 70’s Banana Splits party. To a certain degree, listening to the Crocodiles is a bit like riding a rollercoaster blindfolded – it’s a great adventure and half the fun is not knowing where the hell you’re going next.

You can get the new Crocodiles album Boys on multiple formats at all those places music is being sold.

The Beauty Found In Power-Pop & Introspection or Best Coast – California Nights

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The early days of Best Coast were filled with simplistic images of happy places and troubles no bigger than a rival for someone’s affection or a need for the sun. Not that there is anything wrong with that; after all Best Coast was providing the kind of indie-pop, garage, lo-fi, reggae influenced tunes that kept us northerners warm all winter.  It was a return to the myth that California is the place of adolescent dreams come true, and no one will argue that once wrapped in a sonic blanket watching a fire burn.

Still it has been five years since the Best Coast debut Crazy For You and one can only live in dreams for so long? Eventually there is a reckoning…

Right?

The answer is California Nights. Gone is the warm washing fuzz of reverb on everything that had the words lo-fi and surf rock attached to their records, and in is a more ‘nineties-esqe’ alt-rock tone that could be slipped into a mix between the Lemonheads and Garbage. Thematically, this is also the case as Bethany Cosentino has switched gears and presented herself in a more realistic position as lyrics deal with insomnia, heartbreak and happiness in pill bottles. Actually, dare I say it, it seems Cosentino has grown introspective and the guitar work of multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno has risen to match. No longer are songs restricted to the quick “pop” length of two three minutes, but now the sound sometimes goes all ‘shoegaze’ and rides a guitar riff for all its worth. To some extent, the title track itself conjures more images of brit-pop than anything that could come out of a California night.

It isn’t all happy smiles as the sun sets to the west, there is anger and melancholia in the air as opener “Feeling OK” rightfully has you questioning the validity of such a statement. The song at its heart reveals that “OK” isn’t a satisfactory resolution to any question worth asking – especially one as loaded “how are you.” Even if one is asking it of themselves.

The triumph of this record is that it doesn’t live in a world of manufactured dreams come true, eternal sun, and beaches. The emotions behind it are universal and hence you can relate to it more. California Nights is proof positive that beauty can be found in the balanced mix of power-pop and introspection, and that’s a sunny thought all by itself. It’s worth every cent spent and more.

You can pick this album up at your local record stores or get some special packages from the band site – here.

Fog covered Neon or Blur – The Magic Whip

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Blur had one of the most anti-climatic breakups in recent history. I’m not even sure it really was a break-up… more a trial separation between the lead guitarist (Graham Coxon) and vocalist (Damon Albarn). Coxon may not have been on the last Blur record, but neither was my attention. Think Tank to me is kind of what the Hindu Love Gods were to REM – a side project with three quarters of a band. I mean it was interesting as an exploration of a different style, but it wasn’t really Blur.

So the real gift to gift to music fans wasn’t the reunion of Blur but rather the fact that they started to record again as a “full band.” Spurred on by years of gigs here and there, we get The Magic Whip, which is more than a return to form, but not quite the monumental achievement die-hard fans were looking for. Let’s face facts, the bar is set very high and fans want something they can point to and say “see – they’re still the greatest!”

That doesn’t mean this isn’t a “really damn fine” record, because it is. All the elements that put them on top of the Brit-pop Mountain are still there, but perhaps their new relaxed attitude has taken them to those ‘shoegaze’ roots where a good riff is meant to be taken for a rather long joyride. At very least that is how the record opens up as “Lonesome Street” slips into the subconscious as a wry testament of urban existence. It’s all sarcastic and poppy with a sense of foreboding that plays out as the needle continues to spin. That of course is Blur’s general modus operandi, pop-rock/brit-pop sounds set to observational lyrics and discourse about dreary times and places. All the neon coloured streets of their Asian inspired surroundings can’t hide the descending British fog. Even a song titled “Ice Cream Man” comes off with malaise and desolation. It isn’t until late in the album that some feelings of hope brighten the skies with Coxon’s best jangly guitar work on “Ong Ong.” Still, that is more a respite in an otherwise dark venture.

The Magic Whip is not an easy listen filled with hum along songs and a sing along chorus; instead it is an exploration in the contradictions of a seedy city living with no hope emanating from the bright coloured neon. If you were looking for the Blur of the 1990’s, The Magic Whip isn’t it; they’ve grown older, wiser and far more jaded to be that band ever again. What you have now is a Blur that can explore the depths of humanity and create an incredibly brilliant story. It might not “RAWK”, but it certainly entertains on a far more daring level than anything they’ve done before. Hence, I’m paying attention now.

You can find The Magic Whip at all your better record retailers and it has a double 180 gram vinyl release for all you people who like your music to spin.