THE PHONEMES with the Ivy League and DJ EJ as part of Wavelength at Sneaky Dee's (431 College), Sunday (February 1). Pwyc. www.wavelengthtoronto.com Rating: NNNNN
To language nerds, phonemes are fucking cool because they're the tiniest linguistic unit you can use to change the meaning of a word. They're the deceptively simple building blocks that make up how we understand the word, like the "s" that makes hits shits. For music nerds, Toronto's Phonemes are fucking cool because they're a tiny, perfect pop three-piece who make deceptively simple, intricate little indie tunes that are sweet and catchy to listen to but contain layers of profound meaning under candy coatings of hushed harmonies, guitar washes and twinkly glockenspiel.
Language is important to all three band members - sometime Hidden Cameras Magali Meagher and Matias Rozenberg and Jonasson's Liz Forsberg. How else would they be able to pack their little bundles of joy with heady themes like "language learning, various animals, eating utensils and massive historical guilt"?
"I love hearing bands like Stereo Total do French songs in German. It's so disorienting," offers Meagher. "I translated the words from the English for the second half of the song Plate Dance, and I'd like to do more of it."
OK, so singing about learning languages makes sense when your songwriter's a multilingual translator. But historical guilt? Meagher explains.
"That comes from a song I wrote called Payerne, about my grandfather in France who was a supposed member of the French Resistance. He and his father were taken to Klaus Barbie's (the butcher of Lyon) prison and he eventually died of anemia due to malnourishment.
"The moral of that story for me is really about what you or I might do in such a situation. What will the history books in the future say about today? What if now is like then - Mike Harris, Julian Fantino, Dudley George, Kim Rogers - and we're nowhere to be found? Meanwhile, everybody today is hanging around thinking about getting bikini waxes and will it hurt? There were lots of people back then thinking about bikini waxes, too."
Meagher assures me she also writes love songs. Plus, as bassist/vocalist/mom-to-be Forsberg (her proud glow and swelled belly are marvellous to watch onstage) attests, the Phonemes do know how to be subtle.
"We're not trying to bang the audience over the head with an explicit message. The images the lyrics evoke are quirky and beautiful, coming from a place that isn't stuck in convention."
Forsberg also insists that, although Meagher started out as the primary songwriter, the band is evolving into a much more collaborative beast, incorporating her own tendency toward four-on-the-floor bass lines and Rozenberg's affinity for bouncy bass drum kick pedal accents.
They've known each other long enough. They met a decade ago in Guelph, when Meagher wowed Forsberg with her knowledge of the chords G, C, A and D on the guitar and both play in Jonasson, while Rozenberg first bumped into Meagher years ago at an all-women's performance night.
"There were tons of girls with acoustic guitars, many Ani DiFranco photocopies," he recalls. "Magali's songs really impressed me because she wasn't trying to sound like anyone. Months later, she moved in with my friends through sheer coincidence, and we ended up playing together in her kitchen, her on guitar, me on whatever happened to be lying around in the kitchen, which happened to be one finger cymbal and a chopstick."
Since then, they've put down tons of roots in the burgeoning local indie community, not only through their connections to the Hidden Cameras, but also through innovative anti-label start-ups like Rozenberg's Consumption Records (www.consumptionrecords.com, an arts-and-crafts bartering venture founded on a philosophy of recycling old cassette tapes), and the blocks recording club, a networking hub for musicians founded by ex-Camera and Barcelona Pavilionian Steven Kado, which recently released the Phonemes' debut EP.
"Steve loves to encourage people he believes are creative," offers Rozenberg. "He once told me that it breaks his heart when people keep their creativity to themselves out of shame. I agree. Also, it's more fun to make stuff with friends. The music 'business' is kind of gross."
Meagher elaborates. "Within the Phonemes we do our best to be upfront and communicate. The same goes with blocks. No one's going to bed angry in this band! Both Liz and Matias have social work and therapy backgrounds, which makes for hilarious band meetings. Watch out, Doctor Spock! Someone's gonna get spanked!"