SLAN with the 68s and Runs With The Kittens at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, February 5). $8. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
Canadian media icon and indie artiste Sook-Yin Lee has a new band, and somewhere out there lies an abandoned vacuum cleaner hose breathing a sigh of a relief. In her previous solo gig, Lee used to stun the audience into silence by yowling operatic vocals over intermittent bursts of slide whistle, crappy Casio keyboards from Chinatown and the atmospheric noise of a now-infamous whirling vacuum cleaner hose.
It seemed as avant-garde as Yoko Ono or Philip Glass.
These days Lee's paying her bills as the host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not The Opera and getting her artistic ya-yas out through a musical project called Slan, a collaboration with producers the Black Europeans, the musical team of ex-Dream Warrior Maximum (aka David Morgan) and Rumble (aka Chris Taylor).
Slan come off as a new take on the Sneaker Pimps, sexed up with Gainsbourgian sultriness and a hint of sinister spy film soundtrack flavour. It's a flashback to the late-90s triphop explosion, and it seems slightly out of step with contemporary pop.
But Slan's still considerably more conventional than you'd expect from Lee's musical past.
"If you can pen something that people relate to on a mass level, it can be just as artful as any weird classic jazz composition," insists Lee. "A friend of mine, John Zorn, has made me these compilation tapes over the years that include everyone from Okinawan folk singers to Hüsker Dü to Ornette Coleman to Japanese pop singers to super-mainstream artists. Regardless of genre, I feel like they share the same sphere."
In the 90s, Lee's part in defiantly out-there indie experimental band Bob's Your Uncle snagged her the attention of megalomaniacal impresario Moses Znaimer and landed her a gig hosting beloved Much alterna-show The Wedge. It was Lee's underground tips within that sea of sameness that first exposed me to cool grassroots labels.
She says she's still operating within a similar philosophy.
"Slan has a very specific pop music structure, but within that there are moments of interpretation and moments of improvisation as well. I love to be able to work within a very mainstream convention such as the CBC or MuchMusic and sort of subvert the medium, flip it on its head.
"Looking back on my whole body of work - and I do think of my work in the media as an extension of my art - I feel like everything I've done is an exploration of the intersection between the avant-garde and popular culture."
That's very tricky territory to negotiate, as Lee recently discovered when she went head to head with her bosses at the CBC.
The Mother Corp wasn't so thrilled about Lee's upcoming role as a relationship counsellor in the supposedly sexually explicit new film by Hedwig And The Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell.
The "scenario," as Lee calls it, turned into a matter of public debate, and the CBC was left looking like red-faced prudes when their edgy host threatened to quit.
"It became pretty funny, although it didn't seem funny when I was going through it," chuckles Lee. "Certain communication had to occur for them to understand that the project wasn't just some kind of tawdry porno. Maybe it was a generation gap, but when there wasn't communication to bridge it, this thing did snowball. They were very good about reconsidering, and to their credit there are no conditions.
"It's a first, you know. Jonathan Torrens was in Beefcake a few years ago, and he had a nude scene where he was having anal intercourse, and this was while he was the host of that kids' show Jonovision. But this takes it a step further. It's a controversial film and there is a lot of queer sex. For your average person it's gonna be shocking.
"But I feel strongly about being part of this whole movement in cinema that's about demystifying sex, about making it part of our dialogue. These are all small victories that are moving us ahead."