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Jai Agnish at Graffiti's (170 Baldwin), Friday, 10 pm. $6. 416-506-6699.
jai agnish crafts strangely charming pop music destined to confound record-store clerks. Described by reviewers as lo-fi/electronic/Christian/indie folk, it combines Casio blurps and beats with delicate acoustic guitar and singing.
Though most scene-watchers have latched onto his irony-free Christian faith, he sees it as just another part of who he is. "I'm not out to preach to people, just to reflect as purely as possible what is going on inside of me."
Arming himself with an arsenal of electronic toys, cheap drum machines and his four-track, Agnish makes lo-fi folk music for the hooded sweatshirt set.
"The (live) sound is pretty close (to the CD), since I play with the machines that I program the beats and melodies on." His favourite noise generators include a "spaceship baby toy that's pretty cool, this mini-megaphone thing that makes sound effects, and a phonics toy schoolbus that I sample."
Based in New York City, Agnish has already played in Toronto a few times supporting his debut, Automata. The CD blends the electro-minimalism of Trans-Am with the wistfulness of Nick Drake and the skronk of Pavement to produce memorable sit-at-home-and-dream music.
Check him out Friday at Graffiti's, in Kensington Market.
"Toronto is starting to feel like my get-away spot," says Agnish.
at Ted's Wrecking Yard (549 College), Friday (June 8), 10 pm. $10. 416-928-5012.
just being a country rock band from Minneapolis has brought Bellwether more than their fair share of comparisons to the Jayhawks and Honeydogs, even though their rootsy sound has more in common with the Band, circa The Basement Tapes.
Unlike the Jayhawks and many other obliging alt-county bands who've turned down the twang in hopes of gaining some pop chart action, Bellwether continue to rely heavily on the rustic sounds of banjo, fiddle and mandolin while wisely keeping singer Eric Luomo's bittersweet tenor front and centre.
"Because there's nobody from a label telling us stuff like, "No pedal steel on this one, boys -- we're gonna use French horn instead from now on,' we've been free to do everything exactly the way we wanted. Fiddle? Banjo? Pedal steel? We use them all.
"And we definitely try to keep the vocals and harmonies forward in the mix. It's more of a folk approach, to ensure that the words are clearly understood, which probably comes from playing a lot of cafes."
Bellwether's richly textured self-titled sophomore disc is a soul-stirring achievement. It topped the year-end best-sellers list of alt-country mail-order mecca Miles of Music (www.milesofmusic.com), outperforming Ryan Adams, Vic Chesnutt, Robbie Fulks and everyone else in flannel workshirts.
"Yeah, that Miles of Music deal was pretty cool. I don't know who's buying our album -- maybe it's one person stockpiling them -- but I'm glad someone's enjoying it.
"I get the feeling that a lot of sales are going overseas. We've been getting some strange but charming e-mail messages in broken English saying things like, "We like very much your naked sound.' Whew, boy, have they seen us in the shower? I'd like to think it's a compliment rather than some weird European fetish thing."TP
Doyle Bramhall II and The Smokestacks
at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (June 8), 10 pm. $10. 416-598-4753.
when blues guitarist doyle Bramhall II first picked up drums at the tender age of six, his destiny seemed mapped out.
Son of Texan drumming legend Doyle Bramhall Sr., who regularly jammed with guitar greats like Stevie and Jimmy Ray Vaughn, Bramhall II was always surrounded by jazz, rock and blues musicians and was touring at 16. Maybe that's why he's not intimidated about opening for Eric Clapton at the Air Canada Centre Saturday (June 9), the day after his NXNE gig.
"I remember more about the records I listened to than being on a swing or see-saw," he says from his humble Holiday Inn room in Columbus, Ohio. "It wasn't until junior high that I noticed my upbringing was a lot different from other people's."
Ready to play his first gig at the Horseshoe for NXNE, Bramhall II comes armed with Welcome, his second release, which slid into stores Tuesday. It's a disc that offers slick southern guitar grooves and bluesy licks that have a raw, live feel throughout.
The album also acts as his first collaboration with the Smokestacks, a five-piece band that includes wife Susannah Melvoin, who recently gave birth to their daughter, India.
"The album just took off into a place where I hadn't gone in the studio before. I had the freedom of playing music, as opposed to constructing something like a pop song." ZM
FASCINOMA at the Free Times (320 College), Friday (June 8), midnight. $5. 416-967-1078.
welcome to alanna lin's world of the unexplained.Let's start with the name of her soulful folk project -- Fascinoma.
"It's medical slang for unexpected and inexplicable recovery," she says on the phone from Berkeley, where she studies at the California School of the Arts. "I like the idea of the miraculous and inexplicable."
She says it was providence that enabled her to record her demo disc. Somebody she ran into just knew she could sing and offered her studio time.
Listening to Lin's music, though, you get the feeling that talent may have gotten in the way of pure luck.
She's got a ton of pure vocal technique, and she applies it deftly to her intense, emotionally charged songs. Her smoky voice, wrapped around her bluesy compositions, sucks you in so fast that her painfully personal narratives don't hurt a bit.
Lin grew up in Cleveland playing classical piano and violin in a situation where a lot was expected of her.
"It was kind of the Asian stereotype, a kid playing piano and violin. It was all classical, which is a bit of a sore subject. My father wanted me to be a virtuoso."
Then he inherited two guitars -- more providence, says Lin -- and passed the Ovation and Stratocaster over to her. Voice lessons gave her consistency and confidence, and then she broke out and started writing songs.
Her dad would call her choice subversive, but Lin refers to her work as "politely revolutionary. I'm an advocate for courtesy," she laughs. "If there's any revolution I'm interested in, it's definitely within the person."
FATSKI & ARCEE at the Kathedral (651 Queen West), Friday (June 8), 10 pm. $10. 416-504-0744.
there's only one word that
fully describes the music of Toronto MC and freestyle master Fatski. Raw.
"A lot of people call me old-school," he laughs. "I don't really study that. I just look at my style as raw and authentic, beats that got bottom to them and rhymes that tear your head off.
"I think that's lacking in a lot of the music that's coming out. I'm really critical, because I'm still a fan."
So far he's been true to his word. Appearances on Da Grassroots' Passage Through Time album and at mike workshops and freestyle sessions around town have refined Fatski's rep as an MC's MC.
Expect the rumble to get louder now that 'Ski's debut single is out. A split single with fellow freestyler Arcee (who samples the Sesame Street numbers song on his cut, 12) Fatski's Record Making Manual is a deep funk lesson in hiphop etiquette, full of bragging and the sweet flow to match.
The single is the first public document of Fatski's long-time collaboration with crate-digging beat boss Nautilus The Navigator, and the MC is quick to share the spotlight with his DJ.
"Nautilus and me were friends before we started fucking with each other on a musical level," Fatski insists. "We're always going to work together. He knows me and knows what I like, and you can't get deeper than friendship."MATT GALLOWAY
at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Friday (June 8), 11 pm. $8. 416-596-1908.
keeping a band together can
be a real pain in the ass -- unless your band is a machine.
For the past few months, Toronto singer/songwriter Jim Guthrie has ditched the live musical companion thing and has been jamming onstage and in his bedroom with a Sony PlayStation.
Guthrie plays the guitar; his hot-wired video game machine plays everything else.
It's an odd twist on the familiar man-machine dialogue, but for Guthrie the obvious benefit is that if the song tanks, he can always just play a game.
"I've had a PlayStation for a while, and I read about this game, the MTV Music Generator," Guthrie explains from a hotel room outside Washington, DC. "It's like a sequencer with all these cheesy sounds on it. I was goofing around on it, and once I started playing along with it on guitar.
"It's hard to really feel it, because it's a cold, hard piece of plastic -- it's not the easiest thing to jam along with. But I'm figuring it out. It's a new challenge for me. I don't have the time to get a band together, so this is my band."
Beyond a drastic reduction in intra-band brawling, Guthrie could also use his electronic accompaniment to cash in with sponsorship, or perhaps to explore a lucrative new audience among hardcore gaming geeks for his understated strumming.
"If Sony said, "Here's $10,000, go make music,' I'd think about it," he laughs. "It'd be kinda scary, though, because you'd have all the geeks who are really hardcore into games, and I don't know if they'd like me. They might think I'm some kind of threat to their little world."MG
MATTHEW JAY at Ted's Wrecking Yard (549 College), Friday (June 8), 11 pm. 10. 416-928-5012.
the music of wales-raised, not-
tingham-based singer/songwriter Matthew Jay conveys a supreme sense of confidence. The soft-spoken balladeer himself leads the charge.
"From the very first time I wrote melodies, they came quite easily," Jay admits. "I like my music. For years, all I wanted to do was play football, but I think I was destined to be a musician."
A bit excessive, perhaps, but the critical hullabaloo surrounding Jay's just-released Draw debut suggests he made the right choice.
Dig beneath the album's glossy production and it's easy to see why he's made an immediate connection with grim folks desperate for the next Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.
The mope-pop scene could use a new idol, but Jay is interested in a much wider audience.
"Everything you listen to comes out in your music," he insists. "I don't say, "Oh, I'm a singer/songwriter, and I only listen to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake.' I just tried to take on board as many influences as possible with this record.
"There are dance influences on the album that are obvious to dance music fans. I like to display everything that I like. I'm on vacation now in the south of France, and we're listening to a lot of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. I don't see anything wrong with writing a hiphop loop for my next record.
"I'd never start rapping about bitches and hos, but I think a Matthew Jay hiphop record is really possible."
MEMORY BANK at Everest (232 Queen West ), Friday (June 8), 1 am. $6. 416-977-6969.
something happened to memory Bank. At this time last year, the shaggy Toronto foursome -- which ex-mAde bassist Frank Guidoccio assembled with Sault Ste. Marie buddies Craig Browne and Ryan Gassi -- were easy to dismiss as a misguided Flaming Lips tribute. Suddenly, they've developed into an awesome attack unit capable of delivering a devastating drone all their own.
No doubt replacing their straight-up rawk guitarist Johnny James with Zoebliss mood-elevator Michael Rockwood improved the overall Memory Bank ambience, but there's another reason for the vast improvement in focus. It's called recording.
"It surprised us a bit. We'd been working in the studio with Russ MacKay, who does sound-design work for films. When we started hearing the playbacks, it was, like, "Wow, we sound pretty good.... I actually like this.' That was a great confidence boost."
Memory Bank are currently mixing their Spare Them The Weeds debut, which they plan to release themselves in July. That is, unless someone makes them an offer they can't refuse at their NXNE showcase at Everest Friday night.
"Having had some experience with major labels, I think it's best that we continue developing at our own pace for now. Obviously, I'd like as many people as possible to hear our music, but I don't know if the bands we like on major labels sell any more records in this country than those working independently."TP
STEREO MCS at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Friday (June 8), 11 pm. $18/wristband (first 50 only), $17.50. 416-466-0313.
rob birch is getting used torob birch is getting used to
people coming up to him and saying, "I thought you were dead."
It's been nine years since Birch and the Stereo MCs released a record. For almost a decade, the Brixton hiphop/funk crew struggled to come up with a coherent successor to their epochal 1992 album, Connected, spending virtually every day in the studio and almost coming out with nothing.
A rumoured 400 songs, or 30 albums, were completed and then junked -- "utter fucking rubbish," snorts Birch -- before the Stereo MCs finally finished their new Deep Down And Dirty disc.
The good news for fans is that unlike the Stone Roses' disastrous comeback, the nightmare sessions didn't turn the band into Led Zeppelin. Deep Down And Dirty sounds exactly like what you'd expect a Stereo MCs record to sound like, full of rolling rhythms, stumbling rhymes and a decidedly summer-of-92 feel.
"I guess we're a bit of an odd fish, to be able to come back into the public eye nine years later with a record that's still relevant," Birch laughs. "Most groups come back with a really wack record. I think we've done our best record yet."
Listen to the lanky MC talk about the lost nine years, though, and it's a miracle that anything emerged at all. Having Connected, which has been used constantly in ads and TV shows, booming around them couldn't have helped. It all makes Radiohead's post-OK Computer freakout seem like a temper tantrum.
"There were points where you'd be looking at your shit and you wouldn't even want to put the fucking faders up because you felt so lost," Birch groans. "We tried taking little breaks and recording in lavish studios in Spain, and it didn't make the fucking slightest bit of difference.
"What did make a difference was us buying a building, doing it up and making our own space. We'd put the kettle on, have some beans on toast, play a bit of music and table football, have a smoke, our birds would come by, and we'd feel real.
"After that it was easy-peasy. The song Deep Down & Dirty was born in four hours, and after that the record wrote itself. It's about being down to your last fibre, where you can't get any lower. I've been there, mate, and it ain't pretty."MG
at the Coloured Stone (205 Richmond West), Friday (June 8), midnight. $8. 416-351-8499.
sufjan stevens's multi-instru-
mental creations using sitar, oboe and hordes of electronic toys are like soundtracks for his stories.
He's first and foremost a fiction writer who likes to weave together literary references, from Greek mythology to American transcendentalism. Then he combines his tales with his Captain Beefheart and Sonic Youth-influenced compositions.
He calls his first indie endeavour, The Sun Came (Asthmatic Kitty Records), a sample of possibilities. Where he's gone from there will be revealed this summer when Stevens releases a new album, Enjoy Your Rabbit. It features what he calls programmatic songs (symphonic electronic music, really) that he recorded for the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Born in the year of the rabbit, he's been fascinated with these symbols since spotting them on placemats in Chinese restaurants.
"They just seem so anti-romantic! Like the goat and the ox and the snake and the pig."
Don't be put off, he says, by the fact that it's a highly conceptual project. He believes it's nuanced enough "so you can enjoy the soundscape without having to get too involved in the reference to the animals or the reference to the astrology."
Next up, Stevens plans to work on a series of electronic pop songs that develop a relationship in sound with the characters of the Old and New Testament. Phew.JHow it works
NXNE 2001 June 7-9 at various downtown clubs. For a comprehensive listing of participating artists, venues and set times, consult the NOW club listings and the NXNE Web site, www.nxne.com, which will have daily updates. Complete festival wristbands are available for $18 at various HMV stores (333 Yonge, Queen West, Bloor, Yonge and Eglinton, Square One, Yorkdale, Sherway Gardens, Oakville, Erin Mills Town Centre, Scarborough Town Centre, Pickering Town Centre and Oshawa Town Centre), at NOW Magazine (189 Church), or call 416-870-8000 or order online at www.ticketmaster.ca. One-day wristbands are available at the clubs each night for $12.