Friday, January 29, 2010

Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy)

My cover story for February's Exclaim! is now online. Issue to hit the streets next week.

Owen Pallett
Final Flight of Fantasy
By Andrea Warner

"I pretty much had a meltdown," Owen Pallett admits, laughing ruefully. "This record took a lot out of me." The 30-year-old violin genius didn't name his third full-length album Heartland for nothing. It's all blood, guts, emotion, and his own money that Pallett's poured into the epic, orchestral release, a project that was four years in the making, and according to some anxious and critical fans, long overdue.

"It might seem like I did nothing for, like, four years," Pallett admits. "I made the mistake of going to the message boards yesterday and it was like, 'Heartland coming out!' and someone was like, 'Two years too late!' I'm like, 'You fuckin' loser. I've been so busy!'" Pallett laughs again, but the stress in his voice is evident. He has been busy, and, frankly, probably far more in demand than Pallett himself could have imagined when he began releasing violin-based indie-pop as Final Fantasy in 2005.

His debut, Has a Good Home, and the geeky, fan-boy name earned him plenty of attention, but it was his live performances that proved electric and entrancing. Just a young man and his instrument, usually, Pallett would record his violin into a loop and craft large, textured songs live, with layers of sounds that defied the conventional boundaries of solo artists. His 2006 follow-up, He Poos Clouds, cemented his reputation as a cheeky avant-garde and netted him the first $25,000 Polaris Prize.

His virtuoso skills also made Pallett the go-to person for indie rock's string arrangement and violin needs. By Pallett's own estimation, he's collaborated with about 30 musicians and bands since 2006, including Beirut, Fucked Up, the Mountain Goats, Arcade Fire, and Mark Ronson. He also began scoring films, writing the music for 2009's The Box (starring Cameron Diaz), and working on John Cameron Mitchell's new feature, Rabbit Hole.

All along, though, Heartland was eking out in fits and spurts.

"In early 2007, I sketched out this idea that I was gonna put out on Spectrum [14th Century], which is sort of the prequel EP, and it kind of bummed me out because Spectrum ended up taking a lot longer than I thought," Pallett says. "That was sort of the first time I knew the record was going to be set in this fictional world and I wanted to create it, not by making a map, but by making an EP."

That map helped lay the foundation for Heartland's lyrics, which tell the story of Lewis, an "ultra-violent" farmer that Pallett conceived in a burst of creativity, writing 20 pages of lyrics on vacation in Lisbon, half of which would make up the album. The other half were posted online, Pallett says, so that people could laugh at him. In addition to lyrics, Pallett was still wrestling with crafting Heartland's sound. He knew he wanted something dense and full, and ultimately decided to record the orchestral elements with the Czech Symphony in Prague. It just also happened to coincide with another work commitment: composing the orchestrations for the London-based band, the Rumble Strips, album, Welcome to Walk Alone, with famed producer Mark Ronson.

Pallett holed up in a hotel room and quickly finished the Rumble Strips' orchestral music, resulting in an extra ten days of free time to work on finishing Heartland's arrangements before Ronson arrived. With both albums set to record with the Czech Symphony within days, the pressure was on Pallett to nail Heartland's sound perfectly. But, the role of disciplined taskmaster quickly devolved, and he found himself teetering on the brink of a breakdown.

"[It was] probably the lowest point of my life," Pallett says. "I'd only finished about half of the orchestral arrangements and the other half was all scraps flying around. So I spent ten days where I didn't get out of my bed in this hotel and I'd just order room service and occasionally I'd get up and do push ups or sit ups or something so that my body wasn't turning into a bag of shit. My sleeping patterns got really fucked up, because I'd eat a meal and then sleep for a couple hours and then work and then doze off and sleep for another couple hours, so I was really just working with these little naps all the time and it was really, really hard on me.

"Finally the day came and all the scores were done and Mark was arriving the next day, I printed them off, recorded the session [with the orchestra for Heartland], and that night I was so, like verklempt from the crazy experience of not leaving the hotel room for ten days. My brain was polluted with thoughts of self-doubt, like maybe the session didn't go so well. I was kind of listening to it, but I couldn't really hear it because none of it was mixed, and I was like, 'Oh no, this was a big mistake.' And this was a lot of money for me to sink into a record to get an orchestra to play on it. The next day, I was like, on the verge of tears all day, but had to put on a bright and sunny face to work with Mark. So, he'd be there and we'd be doing these Rumble Strips arrangements and he'd leave the room to talk to D'Angelo or whatever, and I'd be crying and crying and crying and he'd come back in and I'd wipe my eyes, and be like, 'Okay! Time to work!'" Pallett recalls, laughing. "It was such a gruelling experience, and I walked away from it thinking, 'Okay, I'm never going to make another orchestral record again.'"

The breakdown, it seems, was worth it. Heartland is Pallett's most ambitious record yet. Lewis's story weaves every song together lyrically, but the orchestral elements tell an auditory story as well. It's unlike any album you've ever owned. The opening bars of the sprightly "Midnight Detectives" introduce us to Lewis's world, and the music evokes discovery, immersing the listener into a new world where one's as likely to hear flutes and trumpets as synthesizers and violins.

The story, the repeating orchestral elements, and Pallett's soft voice combine to make the connective tissue between each song palpable, while still allowing for easy distinction between tracks. A few songs even sound as though they could find a home on a progressive radio station, such as the dark but whimsical "Lewis Takes Action," with its light-hearted '70s soundscape, or even the delicately propulsive and impossibly catchy "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt."

Whether Heartland actually makes the jump to mainstream remains to be seen, but a few high-profile friends and frequent collaborators have nothing but praise for Pallett's particular genius. Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara had worked with Pallett on Arcade Fire albums, but never on any of Pallett's solo material, and was eager to play on Heartland. But even he admits he didn't quite get it at first.

"I heard Heartland from demo, through recording, past overdubs, and during mixes," Gara says. "I'll be totally honest, I got lost in it at some point... didn't know how it would all work itself out. When I parted ways with the project, it was a bunch of great music. Since then, Owen's turned it into a great album."

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats agrees. Pallett wrote the string arrangements for the Goats' last album, The Life of the World to Come, and Darnielle's admiration for Heartland goes beyond being a Final Fantasy fan.

"I think Owen's ear for a certain kind of wistful mood is pretty peerless," Darnielle says. "Kinda hate to compare him to John Cale, since the string-instrument parallel is so obvious, but I remember listening to the classic John Cale albums when I was a teenager and thinking, well, this is weird ― he's not angry, or mourning something, or possessed by teenage lust; he's somewhere knottier and more grown-up. Songs like 'Red Sun No. 5' from Heartland give me that same thornier-problems, deeper-waters feel, which you don't run across in pop music often outside of a few Pet Shop Boys songs here and there."

Accolades like this might provide a bit of hope that all of Pallett's efforts have paid off. Beyond the record's grandiose sounds, it also marks some major firsts for Pallett: His legendary live show is evolving with a new looping system and he's added another body to what has historically been a very solitary effort. Thomas Gill, who had also recorded with Pallett's co-producer Leon Taheny, has been touring with Pallett for the last year throughout Canada and the U.S.

"I was lonely on stage by myself so I wanted somebody else up there with me," Pallett says. "I'm hoping to integrate him into the creative process, but for now, he's just singing backups, playing some percussion and playing a mean guitar. He is a guitar virtuoso and I'm seriously under-utilizing him."

He's also releasing Heartland under his own name, having decided to ditch the Final Fantasy moniker after years of dancing around Square Enix's copyright (the company develops the Final Fantasy video games). Plus, Pallett confesses, it's the first record he's actually made for other people.

"I've always been a little surprised that people are kinda into my music," he laughs. "Up until Heartland, I haven't really felt like I was making records for people. I'm really proud of it. I don't think I've heard anything like it before. I'm nervous about it coming out though... there's a lot of hubris involved in this. I even kind of sing about it on the last song, 'What Do You Think Will Happen Now?' This is meant to be a love letter, it creates this thing that ought not to exist, 'cause I get it. This record might have been able to sell a million records in 1973, but it's not in that position by any stretch of the imagination. I was kind of aware I was leaving myself open, but I fuckin' love albums that make these grand statements. Maybe next year I'll make pop singles, but this is kinda what I want to do."

Pallett's decision to make an orchestral pop album might flout mainstream conventions, but it's actually in keeping with Canada's recent biggest musical export. Arcade Fire, with whom Pallett collaborates frequently, are considered one of the biggest bands in the world, and are often classified as orchestral pop or baroque rock. Over the last decade, they've helped lift the curtain on Canada's music scene, shining a giant spotlight on acts like Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Pallett himself. But bring up the topic of increasing international acclaim for Canadian musicians, and Pallett can't help but get his back up.

"I don't know. I like me some Broken Social Scene, but fuck that. International acclaim? Carey Mercer still has to work for a living and Black Out Beach has the best fucking record ever produced, and Hank and Deep Dark United, I don't see any international acclaim for those guys, so good for Stars and Broken Social Scene and Land of Talk, because I love those bands, but I think Canada really needs to start boosting some of these real fucking talents that are just being criminally overlooked by everyone." He's quiet for a moment, and then bursts into laughter, admitting that this is a touchy subject. "That was such a harsh response!"

Pallett admits he's already mentally moved on to the next album, aching to perform new songs he hasn't even recorded yet. He's not one to linger in any one moment for too long, and after spending much of the last four years of helping other people add flesh to the bones of their projects, he's ready to focus on himself and a post-Heartland world.

"I'm a little bit sick of collaborating with people," Pallett says. "Last year, I realized I wanted much more time with my own album. I'm 30 years old and I've got ten years of touring before it starts getting back breaking. I can do film scoring, I can do collaborative work at anytime in my life. I want to make albums."

St. Vincent

My interview with Annie Clark (St. Vincent) is online this week at

Well red: Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent.

Well red: Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent.

Credit: supplied

St. Vincent does it herself

Few musical careers have stranger or stronger foundations than that of Texas native Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. At 12, an age when most kids are just starting to fiddle with their chosen instrument, Clark was recording and mixing her own songs on a computer patch-worked together by her step dad. Throughout her late teens, she served as the summer tour manager for her aunt and uncle’s jazz duo, Tuck and Patti. At 22, she donned a giant robe and lent her voice and guitar to the sprawling Dallas symphonic-rock collective Polyphonic Spree; two years later, she joined the backing band for wonderfully weird singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Clark’s uncommon breadth of experience was evident on her first album as St. Vincent, 2007’s marvelously accomplished Marry Me, which was recorded when she was not yet 25. Its 2009 follow-up, Actor, was widely hailed as one of the year’s best albums (including a No. 12 placing in the Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop critics poll).

WE spoke with Clark over the phone about how an arty feminist from the American South managed to grow up into one of the indie world’s quirkiest talents.

How did you begin recording your own music?
My stepfather is actually an accountant, and he had a whole lot of computers, and he’s a really smart engineer kind of guy. So, he had a bunch of parts lying around the house, and with his help and the help of my uncle, who’s also a big kind of genius musician, but also a mathematician, I wanted to build a studio and record myself. This was in the days before Garage Band or anything like that; it was a PC — really slow, non-intuitive software. But as a result, I spent most of my formative music-making years alone making music, and I think that really has informed the way I do things now. I feel very empowered to really just DIY.

I’m just a few years older than you, but computers were often considered a “boy” thing back then. Did you run into that attitude?
I grew up in Texas, and definitely there are stricter gender roles there and in the South than you would necessarily find in Vancouver — just in general; I’m not necessarily indicting Texas. But, luckily, my mom’s a feminist, and I grew up with empowered women around me. My step dad’s a kind-hearted guy and a nerd, so if I was interested, he was thrilled and wanted to show me how to do that or how to clean a fish or how to change a tire or that kind of stuff.

Knowing the digital side would also put you in the unique position of not needing other people to make your music.
Yeah. I think, generally, there’s the concept that technology allows you to make music better than you are. If I can conceive of something, or hear something, maybe it’s painstaking to input it into the computer, but I can make something that’s harder than something I could normally play. It’s this way to push your creativity. You’re not limited so much by your own motor skills. It’s really empowering if you can harness it.

What was going on with you when you were writing the songs for Actor?
I’d pretty much been on tour, solidly, for a year. I’d never toured to that extent before. You spend a lot of time on tour in these non-spaces: in transit or a motel or hotel, where you don’t know who was there the night before or who’ll be there the night after. It’s all part of this non-space, so I started to feel like this non-human. And I’d just moved back to New York, and there’s something about the physical space of the city. I couldn’t make a lot of noise in my apartment, and you could hear other people through the walls, and ostensibly other people could hear you. I’d never really been in that situation where there’s so much anonymity and then a total lack of anonymity.

The music on Actor is just packed with ideas and sounds. What were your sources?
Partly it was the Disney films and the scores from the ’30s and ’40s. For a lot of kids in the Western hemisphere, our earliest memories and conceptions of magic are fairy tales and Disney... You have fairy tales that, on one hand, are magic and sweet, where the whole world can turn around with the flick of a wand. On the other hand, you have the really dark stories, with rape and famine and horrible things that happen in fairy tales that get cleaned up and repackaged into something you can sell at Walmart or whatever. That dichotomy in the fairy tales was really inspiring. I find that to be true to life, in a way. Nothing is ever very simple or a one-to-one ratio, and I wanted to combine that musically.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Owl City

My interview with Owl City runs in the Charleston City Paper this week.

Owl City: Computer World Pop

Adam Young's organic approach to digital music works

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube might be the denizens of the digital age, but MySpace is still good for one thing: creating frenzied online buzz and rabid fan bases for kids making music in their parents' basements. Meet Adam Young from Owatonna, Minn., better known as Owl City, the one-man electro-synth, indie-pop sensation who made his major label debut in 2009 with the 12-song Ocean Eyes (Universal). New fans went nuts for the hit track "Fireflies."

Even though Young's just starting out, he's already stirred plenty of controversy, with a sound that owes a major debt to the Postal Service and the strong Christian influence that pervades his sweetly hopeful songs.

In keeping with Young's internet inclinations, City Paper recently conversed with him about touring, faith, and frozen pizza.

City Paper: Are you still reeling from the rather sudden journey from making music in your parents' basement to selling out shows all over the world?

Adam Young: It's all still pretty surreal. The best part has been seeing all the new places I've never seen before. Having never seen the ocean before beginning to tour last year ... and getting to travel to Japan and China was pretty incredible.

CP: When did you compose your first piece of digital music? What inspired it?

AY: A few years ago, I started making music partly out of boredom, partly for fun, and partly because I once began making a hummus sandwich and realized there wasn't any Swiss cheese in the fridge. I was furious, so I wrote a song called "Hello Seattle."

CP: Does your faith inspire you, and if so, in what way?

AY: My faith is a big part of who I am and is the reason I do what I do.

CP: From what I've read, your life was a bit more sheltered before, and now you're traveling all over, dealing with a diverse fan base and diverse group of peers in the music industry. How have those experiences changed you?

AY: I don't think I've changed much, but it does make me smile when I go to the grocery store and buy the more expensive brand of frozen pizza.

CP: What kind of connection were you hoping to make when you put your music online?

AY: I write and record music just for fun. There was never a goal for getting attention; it was merely something I started doing to keep me busy. It makes me smile to know people are willing to listen.

CP: What do you think of the connection between technology and humanity? Does technology get in the way of people building relationships, or can it help foster relationships?

AY: I think it can go both ways. I think the internet has been a way out for a lot of kids — me included. It allows us to avoid awkward situations, life scenarios, etc. ... things our parents had to stand up and face. It makes me sad how the internet has, in some respects, stolen a lot of imagination and creativity from kids growing up today. At the same time, things like Facebook can be wonderful things, and I wouldn't be where I am now without MySpace. The internet has certainly been a wonderful thing for Owl City, and I'm certain the band wouldn't be nearly as successful without it.

CP: Who are some of your biggest influences musically?

AY: Mostly instrumental ambient music, oddly enough. I don't listen to much music with lyrics, so a lot of different things come into play when it comes to influence. I really connect with certain moods that I discover in film soundtracks. My two biggest musical influences are Jonathan Ford from Unwed Sailor and composer Thomas Newman.

CP: I can imagine you're probably sick of comparisons to the Postal Service, but have you met those guys before? Do you know what they think of your stuff?

AY: I haven't met anyone from The Postal Service, but a lot of people liken Owl City to them. While that was never the intention or the initial concept of the project, I'm totally honored.

CP: Have you been invited to collaborate with other musicians?

AY: I worked with Matt Thiessen from Relient K last year. Matt and I have become great friends working together, and I'm honored to have had the chance to collaborate with one of my favorite artists.

CP: What direction has your writing taken since you've started touring and the scope of your influences has changed?

AY: I've just learned a lot more this past year, and just like anything, the more you work at something, put your heart and soul into it, the better you get at it. I'm already excited to get to work on the next record.

Kris Kristofferson

I got to interview The Kris Kristofferson for the Charleston City Paper this week.

Kris Kristofferson feels it in the bones

The legendary songwriter thrives on his non-stop musical journey

Songwriter Kris Kristofferson is ready for simpler times. One of the last remaining true American music legends, the 73-year-old has also had a sideline career as a successful actor. He isn't interested in reinventing country-folk music; rather, he wants to return to his roots, and he does so beautifully with his most recent album, Closer to the Bone. It's a thoughtful collection of Kristofferson classics: simple songs about love and family.

"Closer to the Bone evokes the kind of image of being stripped down, bare basics. Not a lot of tap-dancin'," Kristofferson laughs.

It's also the way he's spent the last several years connecting with his audience. The majority of his current performances are solo efforts, but he admits it was "scary at first not to have a band to hide in."

Imagining Kristofferson scared of anything is almost incomprehensible. Even his earliest accomplishments prove he hates backing down from a challenge. As a young man, he won a Rhodes scholarship and did a stint as a captain and pilot in the U.S. Army. Ultimately, he pursued songwriting, relocating to Nashville in 1965 and taking a job as a janitor at Columbia Records, where he hoped to meet some of his favorite musicians.

He did make connections, and, by the early 1970s, some of his musical heroes were playing his songs. Some of the most notable versions included Johnny Cash's rendition of "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Waylon Jennings' "The Taker," and, most famously, the Janis Joplin cover of "Me and Bobby McGee."

"I think one of the best things about being a songwriter is you can hear your work interpreted by other people, most of whom are a lot better of singers to my ears," Kristofferson says. "Like, to hear George Jones, or Janis singin' 'Bobby McGee.' A genius singer, and there are a lot of 'em out there, can make it something better than just the words. They can transform it into something better than it was. Jerry Lee Lewis did it with a song Shel Silverstein and I wrote, 'Once More With Feeling.' It's not a bad song, but it wasn't great 'til he sang it. It was incredible."

The '70s continued to be kind to Kristofferson. He released 13 albums, and made the jump to movies, including the Academy Award-winning A Star is Born, co-starring Barbra Streisand. At the height of his film popularity, Kristofferson's bare chest and bushy beard graced a bevy of marquee posters. By the 1980s, Kristofferson had also gained entry into the ranks of his musical heroes, forming the super-group, The Highwaymen, with Cash and Jennings.

Throughout the next 20 years, Kristofferson continued to act, record, and continue his social activism. On Closer to the Bone he pays tribute to freedom of speech with the song "Sister Sinead," an ode to the Irish pop singer who was vilified at a Dylan concert Kristofferson hosted, following her controversial Saturday Night Live appearance in which she tore up a picture of the pope.

"I've never ever seen everybody boo somebody. I'd never heard anything like it," Kristofferson recalls. "The guy who was runnin' the stage came up to me and he said, 'Get her off the stage — now.' It shocked me so bad, I walked up there to her and said to her, 'Don't let the bastards get you down.' And it went over the microphone!

"She said, 'I'm not down' and sang this other song, and then she wheeled around and she was so shocked I guess by what they were doing, she threw up on the stage. She may be wrong, but she may not be, you know? I've never seen an audience turn on a person like that. And the fact that it happened at a Bob Dylan show made it almost cosmic, you know?"

"Sister Sinead" is the fifth track on Closer to the Bone, a record that seems to double as a time capsule of some of Kristofferson's most personal moments. The album's eighth track, "Good Morning John," was written for Cash over 30 years ago, but it's never been recorded until now.

"There were different reasons about why I didn't record it, but I wrote it for him long ago when he was comin' off of rehab," Kristofferson says. "It's a special relationship I had with him. He was my hero and turned out to be my best friend." Cash died in 2003.

Kristofferson admits he's grown more reflective, but he's not slowing down at all.

"I'm sort of getting ready to finally write an autobiography I've been threatening to do, and people have been trying to get me to do," he admits when pressed about his future plans. "I've been resisting for a long time, but I feel I better get started while I can still remember what I had for breakfast!" He laughs loudly. "Seriously, as you get older, you really do have a hard time with names, or at least I do, so I think I better start writing."

Closer to the Bone might just be the perfect jumping off point for delving into his rich past, since he admits that songwriting is how he makes sense of his life experiences, good and bad. Kristofferson laughs happily as he considers what the rest of his life will look like.

"Listen, I'll probably be doin' this till they throw the dirt on me."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

High Life

My review of the indie flick, Highlife, is in WE this week.

Starring Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Eric McIntyre
Directed by Gary Yates

When Hollywood delves vein-deep into a druggie flick, the audience can usually be guaranteed at least one hallucination, a mumble-scream monologue, and careful layers of makeup — disguised as dirt — to subdue the pretty sheen of the actors’ faces. High Life delivers all of those requirements, and goes one step further by attempting to package a junkie-heist caper as comedy.

The basic premise is familiar: four losers hatch a get-rich-quick scheme (in this case, to rob a bank machine). The plot’s mastermind is Dick (Timothy Olyphant), a former lawyer who leads a group of stereotypical addicts, including hapless idiot Donnie (Joe Anderson), pretty boy Billy (Rossif Sutherland), and violent thug Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre).

The “funny” parts of this dark comedy aren’t all that funny, coming as they do courtesy of the quartet’s crazy drug-fueled antics, and knowing nods to the early-’80s time period. (“Look, you can still smoke inside banks!” the film winks at us.) What does work, and to surprisingly moving effect, is the serious stuff under High Life’s facetious surface. Nuanced performances by Olyphant, as an absentee dad, and McIntyre, as an aging street hood struggling with his latent homosexuality, add layers of subtext to an otherwise lacklustre script.

Flying bullets, narcotics, and a body count can occasionally create comedic gold (hello, Pineapple Express!), but High Life isn’t an innocent little pot party. It dwells in the much harder, more devastating world of addiction, making it almost impossible for the film’s sketchy sad sacks to give an audience much to laugh about. ★★ —Andrea Warner

Debt: The Musical

My review of Debt: The Musical is online now at

All due credit: The cast of

All due credit: The cast of "Debt: The Musical" busts a move for insolvency.

“Debt” goes for broke

With arts budgets slashed and burned, credit-card interest rates at an all-time high, and money increasingly elusive, has there ever been a more timely stage debut than Debt: The Musical?

Written by Leslie Mildiner, with songs by Todd Butler, Debt is a jubilant skewering of art and commerce, loosely structured around the stories of four people crippled by their finances. There’s the single mom/actress (Ellen Kennedy), the shopaholic (Tracey Power), the can’t-make-ends-meet dad (Tom Pickett), and the writer (Andy Toth), all of whom are tied together by a narrator, Spike (Simon Webb). Each attempts to cope in his or her own way with fiduciary tumult, with varying degrees of success — and plenty of singing and dancing.

The most interesting and fully realized stories belong to the single mom who dabbles in the phone-sex industry and also grapples with a bureaucratic welfare officer, and the writer, a daydreaming narcissist who thinks he’s too educated for menial labour.

The musical numbers negotiate the many aspects of falling into debt and climbing back out, from corporate to personal greed, kids, recessions, weak job markets, and the questionable economic value of being a college graduate. Butler’s songs cover a wide range of musical genres, but among the catchiest are the doo-wop-inspired “He’s Got a Degree,” lamenting the job situation for the higher-educated, and the reggae-influenced “Go Postal,” a tongue-in-cheek take on workplace violence. The sobering “Labour of Love” aims for the heart as an ode to struggling parents, but something about the harmony and the melancholy lyrics make it feel cheaply manipulative and out of place with the rest of the show’s well-crafted songs.

Mildiner’s script could still use a bit of tweaking, with perhaps more of a focus on the stronger characters to create a more tangible connective thread and narrative structure. Overall, this strong debut, with fine performances and a winning collection of musical numbers, makes Debt a worthy investment.

To Jan. 30 at Firehall Arts Centre (280 E. Cordova), 8 pm. Matinees Sat.-Sun., 2 pm. Tickets $16-$28 from

—Andrea Warner

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Gov't Mule

My feature on Gov't Mule appears in this week's Charleston City Paper.

Gov't Mule kicks its own style of Southern rock

More than a thread

Warren Haynes follows closely in the footsteps of his blues-rock forefathers. From his appearance — long, dirty blond hair, scraggly gray goatee, man-in-black wardrobe — to his litany of influences, including B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, Haynes has made a name for himself as one of the world's best guitarists.

Not bad for someone who went from being a kid in Asheville, N.C., to a starring role in the Allman Brothers Band and forming Gov't Mule, his own award-winning Southern rock band.

Thanks to the release of a new Gov't Mule album and a massive international tour schedule, Haynes won't lose any momentum in 2010. Fans spent three years anxiously awaiting the rock quartet's eighth studio album, By A Thread (Evil Teen), which was recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas Hill, and released in late 2009. The 11-song collection immediately earned critical acclaim. The accolades were nice, but they're simply an affirmation of a career that's spanned over 30 years.

"It feels like we're moving forward and backward at the same time," Haynes said in a recent press release. "Hardcore fans tend to not want us to move too far away from where we started, but the band never wants to stay in one place for very long."

Haynes was just 20 years old when he began playing guitar with country singer-songwriter David Allan Coe. He spent four years touring the world, and played on nine of Coe's albums. An opening slot for the '70s-era rock legends, the reunited Allman Brothers Band, introduced Haynes to lead guitarist Dickey Betts. Haynes and his friend, bassist Allen Woody joined the band in 1989, coinciding with its 20th anniversary.

In 1994, Haynes and Woody formed their own project, Gov't Mule, with drummer Matt Abts, dedicated to recreating the riffy magic of power trios like Cream, ZZ Top, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, releasing their debut a year later.

After straddling both projects for three years, Haynes and Woody left the Allman Brothers Band behind to focus on Gov't Mule full-time, but they had just three years together when Woody died of an overdose in 2000, putting Gov't on a temporary hiatus. Haynes rejoined the Allmans in 2001.

The current lineup includes multi-instrumentalist Danny Lois and bassist Jorgen Carlsson.

For the last nine years, Haynes has juggled both groups, (with touring stints on guitar and vocals in The Dead). Recently his style of music has found new relevance, and a new audience.

By A Thread has been lauded as the band's best album since Woody's death. Haynes' voice alternates between a warm, gruff purr and a sexy, snarling growl. The album's opening track, "Broke Down On The Brazos" starts out hard and dirty, grinding the blues from its guitars' strings. It's a great contrast from the slightly psychedelic and bleak "Monday Mourning Meltdown." Even on a potential misstep like "Frozen Fear," which borders on cheesy with its '80s-era soulful saxophone wail, it's impossible to deny the skillful musicianship which pulls the track back from the cheddar brink. It's the sort of trick that only a true guitar hero knows.

Indie twists on Haynes' blues-driven Southern rock, like the Kings of Leon and The Drive-By Truckers, have found major mainstream success, inspiring younger audiences to seek out its pioneers. Gov't Mule's ability to bridge a generation gap isn't surprising: they're one of the few bands to encourage audiences to bring in their video cameras and recording equipment and tape the shows. Mule makes the songs available for purchase and download from their official website. Gov't Mule's presence online, from YouTube to MySpace to Twitter, is consistent with their forward-thinking approach, without sacrificing any of the sound that Haynes has so carefully cultivated over the last three decades.

PuSh Festival-Poetics: a ballet brut

My piece on the performance piece, Poetics: a ballet brut, appears in this week's WE.

New York-based performance artists the Nature Theater of Oklahoma take the mundane movements of everyday life and transform them into art with Poetics: a ballet brut.

New York-based performance artists the Nature Theater of Oklahoma take the mundane movements of everyday life and transform them into art with Poetics: a ballet brut.

Credit: supplied

Nature Theater PuSh-es the limits of dance

Falling out of bed or eating pizza might not be the equivalent of a gravity-defying grand jeté, but to the folks from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a New York-based avant-garde performance troupe, there’s poetry and dance in everything we do. Hence, Poetics: a ballet brut, a confounding and often polarizing project that takes simple, everyday gestures and asks the audience to explore the inherent artistry of commonplace movements. WE spoke with Kelly Copper, Nature Theater’s co-founder and Poetics co-director, about the company’s Kafka-esque origins, the process of creating a non-dance dance show, and what to expect from the final product.

WE: Where did the name Nature Theater of Oklahoma come from?
Kelly Copper: [Co-founder] Pavol [Liska] originally comes from the former Czechoslovakia, now Slovak Republic, and his first home in the U.S. was in Oklahoma. He came here at age 18 on his own, a bit like the Karl Rossmann character in Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika. So, this is how we got our name. The last chapter of that book is called “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma,” and in it, this poor misfit who has had a myriad of awful jobs since he first set out to America finally is hired by a theatre company who advertise that they have a “place for everyone! Everyone in his place!”

Where did the idea come from for Poetics?
Poetics came from a sort of personal crisis Pavol was having about directing: Is [directing] enough of an art form on its own, or do we need a script? Is the script the essential? So, we started with just a map of a performance, with no language, with entrances and exits which were all determined by a throw of the dice. We gave the four performers this score and asked them to move around and say nothing. And we watched that for several weeks, just thinking about movement and what it means, and you notice it does mean something even on its own. When one person moves to stand next to another and then suddenly moves away — as an audience, you interpret that. So, we became very interested in the way an open system like this creates possibilities for the audience to author their own experience. And then, as we began scripting movement — again using dice, and incorporating observed gesture and posture of people on the street, people standing, sitting, sleeping — we realized we had a dance, and then we had to deal with that as well.

What were the initial reactions to the show?
Well, one artist said that for the first 10 minutes she thought that it was the worst thing she had ever seen, and then she was surprised that her own opinion kept changing through the piece, until in the end it was the absolute best thing she’d seen and she was amazed by the range of emotion she felt about it during the course of just 60 minutes. That always makes me smile, to think of her alternately hating and loving the show. It does that to people.The show will take anything from an audience and give back to them tenfold. It’s about that dynamic — spectator and spectacle. Which one are you?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crazy Heart review

My review of Crazy Heart is in this week's WestEnder.

Jeff Bridges stars opposite Maggie Gyllenhall in director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart.

Jeff Bridges stars opposite Maggie Gyllenhall in director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart.


Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed by Scott Cooper

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a Nashville relic, a hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ mess of a man. He’s also a brilliant singer-songwriter suffering from three years of writer’s block, now relegated to playing dive bars and bowling alleys while his protégé has hit the big time. If Crazy Heart sounds like a country album disguised as a movie, it is — to both good and bad effect.

Blake’s a beloved hero and bona fide star on the small-town circuit, sleeping with middle-aged groupies but barely able to afford a bottle of his preferred liquor. A stop in Santa Fe introduces him to Jane (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring music journalist who falls for his poetry and grizzled charm. The requisite “love of a good woman” story unfolds with just enough variation to keep up the momentum as Blake struggles to atone for his mistakes. These include alcoholism, abandoning his son, and pissing away his promising career. Together, they almost choke the movie with country-fried clichés.

But a rambling script can’t keep a good cast down. Gyllenhaal creates a genuine, believable spark with Bridges despite a 20-year age gap. And Blake’s frenemy, a newly-minted country star named Tommy Sweet, is a tasty bit of stunt casting. (It’s this particular actor’s best performance in years, and the surprise was a pleasant one, so we’ll keep his identity under wraps.)

The songs, mostly written by T-Bone Burnett, sound like old-school country gems, and Bridges makes every refrain resonate with his scratchy timbre. Audiences will smell each whiskey-soaked breath and feel every roughly calloused fingertip as Bridges sinks deep inside Bad Blake’s bones. It’s a performance so finely crafted and sympathetic that every screw-up deals a devastating, visceral blow. Ultimately one man and his music elevate Crazy Heart above standard-issue redemption fare. ★★★—Andrea Warner

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Owen Pallet's Heartland reviewed

My review of Owen Pallett's Heartland is online at Exclaim! right now.

Owen Pallett
By Andrea Warner

Owen Pallett's now recording under his own name, having shed the Final Fantasy moniker last month, just in time to make his most personal and ambitious album yet. Pop orchestral epic Heartland is tense, cheeky and emotional, a dense amalgamation of sounds that traverse an entirely fictional landscape of Pallett's making. Heartland's narrator, Lewis, has been described as an "ultra-violent" farmer, and while the lyrics certainly lead the listener into some dark places, it's surprising how much of the album plays like catchy, kooky electro-pop. "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" owes a debt to '70s AM gold, a deceptively cheery sounding number that warns: "Got a thirst for liquid gold, I'll bludgeon 'til the body's cold."

Even songs that combine soaring string arrangements with (what sounds like) woodwind trills, such as exploratory opener "Midnight Detectives," have hummable hooks. There's plenty of moodier fare here as well, like the percussion- and keyboard-heavy "Red Song No. 5" and "E for Estranged," a beautifully melancholy piano-driven piece kept tense with a steady background hum featuring contrasting strings. It's a surreal experience, and Lewis's world is a place that demands to be visited again and again. Heartland is an entirely self-contained universe, with Pallett the master of this domain. (Domino)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Youth in Revolt

My review of Youth in Revolt is in this week's WestEnder.

Michael Cera broadens his acting range with a double role in the new black comedy Youth in Revolt.

Michael Cera broadens his acting range with a double role in the new black comedy Youth in Revolt.

Starring Michael Cera, Steve Buscemi
Directed by Miguel Arteta

Youth in Revolt owes a lot to ’80s teen sex comedies, but the fresh twist here is that the teens are articulate, intelligent, and afflicted with high-brow quirks. Cue Michael Cera, who until now has been reliable but unchallenged playing variations on the same character from Superbad to Juno.

Loosely based on the 1993 self-published novel-turned-cult-favourite by C. D. Payne, Revolt is an unwieldy octopus of a film dabbling in multiple genres: coming-of-age, slapstick, art-house, and black comedy, to name but a few. Nick Twisp (Cera) is a 16-year-old virgin and aspiring writer with a penchant for Frank Sinatra and Fellini. His parents, Estelle (Jean Smart) and George (Steve Buscemi), are fuck-ups, but that doesn’t prevent them from constantly hooking up with others while Nick watches incredulously from the sexless sidelines. Everything changes, however, when the awkward hero meets his soul mate, Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), at a trailer park.

His desires thwarted by disapproving parents, distance, and Sheeni’s golden boy of an ex, Nick explores his bad side to secure Sheeni’s affections. He manifests a rebellious alter ego, Francois Dillinger (also Cera), and ‘together’ they commit a variety of crimes, including arson, car theft, and the botching of a fake suicide.

Cera is utterly charming as Francois, wholly inhabiting the character’s wispy mustache and confident swagger. He’s finally found a role that reveals another dimension to his comedic talent, while still making use of his trademark Cera-ness (an adorable old man trapped in a gangly, awkward body). He helps Revolt rise up from merely mediocre to genuinely entertaining. ★★★—Andrea Warner