LAND OF TALK with WINTERSLEEP and CONTRIVED as part of the Dependent Tour at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (April 7). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Some people go to music school to surround themselves with critical analyses of moving and shaking and strategic marketing initiatives. Others choose post-secondary musical studies to become more technically adept than diatonically programmed robots - ask 'em to warble an A-flat two octaves above middle C and they'll hit it.
Then there are the kids who learn one thing from their formal musical education: dropping out of Music U is the best route to rock 'n' roll success.
As brutal as that lesson was for two-thirds of Montreal upstarts Land of Talk, no-bullshit frontwoman Elizabeth Powell claims the intense, gritty indie rock crew likely wouldn't exist if she hadn't become a music-school dropout.
"We had to do things like ear training, which [drummer] Bucky [Wheaton] failed and I passed based on charm," she laughs ruefully. "I bombed voice classes because, apparently, I can't sing."
Apparently, her profs had tin ears. Powell may not have a future as an opera singer, but the phenomenal vocal control that lets her effortlessly shift between sultry, sandpapered purrs and emotionally wrought wails on Land of Talk's great debut EP, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss (Dependent), is one of the band's hugest assets.
Fortunately, Powell turned a deaf ear to the criticisms and, fed up with Concordia University's asinine, arbitrary judgments (one prof randomly gave her an A+ because he claimed he could "never understand [her] reality as a tall woman"), jumped ship and learned how to rock with fellow disaffected classmate Wheaton.
Actually, that should really be re-learned how to rock. Powell, a Suzuki-trained violin kid who grew up in Guelph, started shaking rec room walls and church basement foundations at age 14, when she immersed herself in the now notorious all-ages indie scene alongside Aaron Riches, Jim Guthrie, Gentleman Reg and Island/ex-Unicorn Jaime Thompson.
Powell had a band called the Valentines (which "took Guelph by storm," she sarcastically quips), then went solo with a four-track album titled I Think You Ought To Love Me More.
The supportiveness of the Royal City's indie scene made her transition to the hipster enclave of Montreal even more jarring.
"Moving to Montreal seems like a total blur now. I actually thought I was gonna quit music and study languages or something. It was rough being a big fish in a little pond and ending up somewhere where nobody gave a shit.
"Even after I quit school," she continues, "people kept pulling me back into music, sometimes for the wrong reasons. At 20, 21, I just let myself be sucked into this older male fantasy.
"Finally, I said fuck off to a lot of people, and Bucky and I started jamming. That was two years ago, and it's been the perfect chemistry ever since."
Bassist Chris McCarron, who'd known Wheaton since their Moncton high school days, is a more recent addition.
Powell, who cites Will Oldham as a major songwriting influence, feels somewhat mortified by some of the choices she's made in the past. You may remember an ersatz-Esthero triphop tart dubbed Ele*K who had a brief residency at SpaHa on the U of T campus a few years back. That was her. She ended up posing suggestively on a lion for the CD's liner notes.
"As much as I had dreams of murdering those dudes, I totally agreed to all of it. I thought it'd be funny!" She moans, "I've gotta take responsibility for what I got into."
Maybe it's to make up for the wimpier choices in Powell's past that Land of Talk sounds so awesomely ballsy. ("People don't even know I have a dick," she laughs. ) Their lyrics are primal and occasionally perverse, meshing perfectly with the band's distorted lurching guitars and loping rhythms.
In keeping with Powell's distaste for taking on the token frontwoman role, one of the most striking aspects of Land of Talk is how fully and completely they sound like a band not just some label construction where two dudes back a sex symbol. They have way more in common with the raw sound of classic East Coast indie rock like Thrush Hermit or convoluted emo like Pinback than they do with, say, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
That's likely why erstwhile East Coaster Brian Borcherdt (Holy Fuck) was drawn to the group. After a last-minute Pop Montreal solo gig with Powell, he asked her band to open for Holy Fuck, then invited them to join his Dependent collective/record label.
"He wanted to help us out in any capacity," laughs Powell. "At the time, I was selling CD-Rs off the side of the stage; half of them were faulty and the other half were blank. People would come up and complain, and I'd have to keep replacing them.
"Brian was there during one interaction, and I think he just felt so bad that he offered to release our record."