MANTLER with the CARIBBEAN and NICK BUTCHER at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Friday (March 17), 8 pm. $5. 416-531-5042. Rating: NNNNN
When Mantler (aka Chris Cummings) finds out that his blue-eyed-soul take on classic adult contemporary is going to be written about in the Vibes section, he's understandably a bit bemused.
"I like dance music, but I don't really pay much attention to it or try to keep up with it. I mainly listen to a lot of jazz, old soul and 70s R&B," the soft-spoken Cummings confesses.
The connection isn't that random, though. After all, one of the constants in the Toronto-born musician's sound has been his love of primitive early drum machines, and his most recent album, Landau, relied heavily on computer-based sequencing.
The producer of his first album (James Duncan) has since moved to New York and is now better known for playing trumpet on house music records, and his current label (Germany's Tomlab) was initially known as a home for weird electronic music.
All these facts are essentially red herrings, though, and more a testament to the blurring of the lines between pop and electronic music than to anything else. Cummings sees his intimate, delicate pop as a tribute to the classic soul music he loves, but interpreted through the ears of a very white Canadian. Picture classic soft rock, but without the sugar overload and smarmy smoothness. The production and instrumentation are simultaneously understated and lush.
There are lots of ideas and layers going on, but they're spread out in such a way that the music comes across as an artsy minimalist reimagining of classic AM radio makeout tunes.
Preserving the rich harmonies, synth embellishments and flugelhorns in the live show is pretty much impossible for a one-man band, unless Cummings goes the laptop route, which he's so far avoided. There was an actual Mantler band at one point, but most of the members no longer live in Toronto, which has forced him to take things into his own hands.
"Translating it live hasn't been as hard as I thought it would be. I usually just do it by myself with my Wurlitzer and drum machine, and tend to pick the songs that are more musically complex, at least in terms of chord progressions."
He's currently preparing to start his fourth album as Mantler, which in theory will be based much more on live playing and acoustic instruments.
On the other hand, Cummings went into the last project thinking that as well, and ended up sequencing most of it. He's also trying to keep the mood a bit lighter, or at least less overtly personal and introspective.
"I like sad music, but it has to have a certain amount of humour as well, which I thought I'd included in Sadisfaction -- I mean, even the title was a pun. Reading over the reviews, though, I guess I didn't really succeed in putting that across, because so many people seemed to latch onto the sadness more than anything else."