BLEACHED with HUNTERS at the Silver Dollar, Thursday, April 25. Rating: NNN
Bleached and the Silver Dollar share several characteristics - the Los Angeles band's music and the local venue's ambience are both intimate, unpretentious and a little scrappy. Perhaps that's why the band was booked for three late-night shows at last year's NXNE - all of them packed, sweaty highlights of the festival.
Last time sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin had only a handful of songs to their name, including the catchy, heart-on-sleeve Think Of You and Searching Through The Past. Now they're touring in support of their debut album, Ride Your Heart. The newer material doesn't stray from the "pop-punk songs about boys" formula, formula and doesn't need to - it makes them badass and endearing at the same time.
If Bleached sang mostly about broken hearts, Brooklyn-based opening act Hunters were more concerned with breaking them. Isabel Almeida flailed energetically around the stage singing songs like Noisy Bitch and Brat Mouth - heavy stuff but with a sunny vibe. Both acts reminded us that summer is (finally) around the corner.
SHABAZZ PALACES at Lee's Palace, Tuesday, April 23. Rating: NNN
There's no hype man at a Shabazz Palaces show, no call and response, almost no singing along.
But Ishmael Butler is a magnetic frontman, so none of those typical hip-hop trappings are necessary. Wearing a Jackson Pollockesque splatter sweatshirt, he spat with simultaneous fury and joy, moving in staccato sync with his clipped, quick rhyming. When he was vocally silent, he was hunched over his computer/mixer table, not just mixing, but playing the shit out of that mixer, the energy from his entire body pouring into his thumb and index finger.
Beside him, Tendai Maraire alternated between tapping his drum pad and banging his congas, throwing in some ambient singing as well. When the two periodically broke into coordinated dance moves - 90s R&B-group-style - it was as surprising as it was delightful.
There wasn't much for anyone unfamiliar with the music or not into this substratum of experimental hip-hop. To the uninitiated, the whole show might have seemed like one long, same-sounding jam session. But Shabazz Palaces aren't the type of musicians to care much - they were performing for their specific but loyal fan base.
HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS at the Sound Academy, Thursday, April 25. Rating: NNNN
Nine Inch Nails played one of their last shows at Toronto's final V-Fest in 2009, but we suspected we'd see Trent Reznor again. Last week we did, but to the chagrin of the fans who dug out their black NIN hoodies, How to Destroy Angels are a far cry from the ear-ringing aggression of Reznor's former (and soon-to-be-future) band.
The live show was originally going to be a one-off experience at Coachella, but so much time, energy and money went into the concept that they decided to take it on an abbreviated tour. The five band members played behind a semi-transparent curtain that framed them in silhouette in front of a giant LED screen and behind ever-morphing translucent projections controlled live onstage by creative director Rob Sheridan. His shimmeringly abstract digital static matched and elevated the music's glitchy, atmospheric pulse, lending it the feeling of a living art installation.
It was a more mannered performance than we've come to expect from Reznor. Rather than shred his vocal cords or destroy instruments, he stood back on keys and guitar, leaving lead vocal duties to his wife, Mariqueen Maandig. But many fans were obviously there to see Reznor, erupting in applause every time he joined her on a harmony.
THE MILK CARTON KIDS at the Drake Underground, Saturday, April 27. Rating: NNN
They played old guitars into specialty microphones, dressed like they were going to a funeral and teased each other mercilessly between Simon and Garfunkelesque tunes: this is the stage shtick of California duo The Milk Carton Kids (Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale).
It was so quiet, you could hear the clink of glasses during songs; their improvised, awkward stage banter served them well - their captivating, sombre music seemed re-energized after each ribbing.
When the MCK sing in harmony, it's almost too pretty, and thankfully the set included moments when one or the other would sing or play alone.
Pattengale's the stronger guitarist, and watching his fluid playing was a highlight of the evening. Unfortunately, the songwriting was less memorable, though Memphis, with its slow tempo, evocative lyrics and musical references, was a good closer.
These guys are great at their job, but something about the performance made me wonder if there isn't a bit of real annoyance in that biting repartee - if, after two years of rapid success, they're beginning to tire of one another or some of their downbeat material.