METRIC with Amy Millan at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Sunday (December 23). $5. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
the first time i saw metric live, iwas blown away. Sandwiched into an opening slot between two other sweetly artsy, sorta electronica acts, their pure rock 'n' roll energy stood out.Bizarre, that, since they're the furthest thing from a straight-ahead rawk act. James Shaw has concocted a strange brew of Blonde Redheadish art pop, new-wave synths and blissed-out triphop beats, complemented by Emily Haines's chameleon warble, which channels everyone from Justine Frischmann to acid jazz chanteuse Nicolette. Shaw's virtuoso instrumental talent impresses, but it's Haines's pure sex appeal that makes for such a captivating live show.
Live is the only way anyone can hear them right now. Although they've signed a sweet deal with L.A. label Restless Records (best known as the home of 80s punks Danzig, the Dead Kennedys and the playful They Might Be Giants), their record is on hold indefinitely while Restless wrestles with business issues.
Sitting in a Cabbagetown pub while the first snowstorm of the year rages outside, we chat like old pals. The topic shifts to mainstream music and Madonna, which gets Haines heated up about being a chick in a man's world.
"Being a female performer is totally about making the great big world-cock hard," she declares. "What if I totally freak them out and their penises shrivel up in their pants? It's sad."
Contemplating their up-in-the-air record deal, the two admit they're used to being in limbo. They're living in Toronto for the time being, but plan to jet off to the West Coast as soon as the album drops. All this moving around comes naturally to the members of Metric, who think of themselves as latter-day nomads.
Haines was born in New Delhi, Shaw in the UK. They've called Montreal, Vancouver, London and New York home over the last decade, although they first hooked up in the T-dot. They set up a pomo hippie musician commune in Brooklyn, where they shared a poorly heated loft with a motley crew of artists, including former NOW cover kids Stars, but left the Big Apple in the wake of September 11.
Metric have songs for each city they've lived in. They insist that certain songs only make an impact in their place of origin. They've got a song called Parkdale, written about Toronto's downtown ground zero for crackheads, lesbians and art galleries.
"We just couldn't get it to work anywhere else," Shaw says excitedly. "But when we played the Art Bar in Parkdale, it worked live for the first time. We wrote a bunch of songs in London, and I know they won't work until we play in London again. The way we write is to take in our surroundings, figure out why we're feeling the way we're feeling and put that into music. If you jet 4,000 miles away, you're not feeling that any more. It's, like, the first time I went to Jamaica I felt like I understood reggae music on a whole different level."
It would all be so much flaky stoneresque pseudo-philosophy if Metric's songs didn't evoke such a strong sense of place. Poetry is in Haines's blood. Her father is Canadian poet Paul Haines, who wrote lyrics for jazz composer Carla Bley. She cites him and Steely Dan's Donald Fagen as the major influences behind Metric's Gen Xistentialist lyrics, which take you to places like decrepit student high-rise apartments with broken radiators, or steamy post-coital bedrooms.
Obscure trivia note: Haines's sister is deposed CFTO reporter Avery Haines, who was canned after a camera accidentally caught her making tongue-in-cheek un-PC comments -- but you won't find any lyrics about stuttering, gimpy folksingers in Metric's music.