LADIES AND GENTLEMEN with CATLOW and the WIZARD OF ROCK at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Saturday (October 1). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
On a bitterly cold night in early spring, i'm standing in a sea of leather jackets at the Silver Dollar, watching things go to shit for a gaggle of dudes in dazzling white suits.
The Ladies and Gentlemen don't wilt when the first guitar blows out in the middle of their harmony-heavy new wave assault. Frontman Thom D'Arcy keeps smiling as his bass crackles, then dies, but you can sense his panic when static fells a synth.
The club feels uncomfortably claustrophobic. Poker-faced industry dudes sporting Canadian Music Week laminates and irritated glares start grumbling. They're anxious to discover the next band they can turn into major-label gold, and though D'Arcy's previous stint in two-time EDGE Rock Search winners the Carnations gives his Ladies and Gents a certain built-in pedigree, the leather-jacketed types are none too impressed by some arty costumed act that can't even make it through a 30-minute set.
I'm about to walk out when D'Arcy mutters something to the guy playing the remaining keyboard. All of a sudden, the gleefully cheesy opening riff of Van Halen's Jump explodes into the room.
Buoyed by handclaps and synchronized bouncing, the suited crew transform a potential disaster into a facsimile of the best night ever at the Dance Cave. In the unexpected highlight of the festival, Ladies and Gentlemen have liftoff.
"What else could we do?" asks D'Arcy half a year later, the week of another chaotic festival gig, this time a wholly triumphant spin at NYC's CMJ fest.
"That was the worst show ever! But man, it was fun. As long as you don't get stressed out, fucking up can actually enhance the show."
That Midas touch - turning gaffes into gold - has taken D'Arcy years to develop. He tried but never quite hit the right chord with the Carnations, and toured internationally - as a bassist in someone else's band (former Doughboy John Kastner's All Systems Go crew). Now, though, he's making up for past blunders on Small Sins (Boompa), Ladies and Gentlemen's stellar debut, and people, like the U.S. label reps he impressed at CMJ, are paying attention.
It seems fitting that we're dodging pigeon poop in the middle of a park in the Market as D'Arcy describes how a bout of mid-20s angst spurred him to take stock of his life.
"When I started the Carnations, I couldn't even imagine being 30. I figured I'd be dead - I couldn't see that far into the future," D'Arcy admits sheepishly. "And now that I'll most likely be alive when I'm 30, I'm like 'Oh my god, what am I gonna do? And what have I been doing? Why did I get a philosophy degree? What was I thinking?'
"For the first time, I wanted to write something more honest," he says, absently fiddling with the rubber sole of his sneaker. "I wanted to make every song about a topic that actually meant something to me."
Dressed in ratty jeans and a thrift-store T, chain-smoking and drinking black coffee, he could be any hipster indie dude having an existential crisis. But the difference between him and the other stringy-haired Hamlets is that D'Arcy's turned his quarter-life crisis into one of the best new Canadian albums - and bands - of the year.
It's no surprise that D'Arcy, with one foot in philosophy, manages to parlay revelations about how he's "been a moron in the past and will continue to be a moron from time to time" into the dialectics about guilt, responsibility, love and loss that shape the gut-churningly personal songs on Small Sins.
These narratives detail real-life mistakes and regrets: taking someone home and kicking her out before dawn, pulling yourself away from a self-destructive girlfriend when you realize you can't save her.
Yet in spite of its heady content, Small Sins is anything but a slit-your-wrists downer of an album. Instead, D'Arcy's sweet-but-not-gooey surfer-soul vocal melodies float in a haze of his own falsetto harmonies, retro-futuristic Moog flourishes and gently burbling keyboard riffs.
It's lazy, shimmering, soft-focus synth rock he jokingly dubs "bedroom pop" - bouncy enough to have an entire room of industry grunts supplying handclap percussion, as they did when the Ladies and Gentlemen scored the $3,000 Galaxie Rising Stars Award at this year's NXNE fest, but fragile enough to capture the kind of nostalgic ache you get on a day like this one, in early September, when the first leaves are turning and you have to pull on a sweater.
That tricky balance, says D'Arcy, was his main goal.
"I wanted to make a record you could either fall asleep to or hear at the Dance Cave. So it's mellow yet upbeat, and difficult to define in ways that actually work. Like, I bet those baseball caps are nodding when the Postal Service's Such Great Heights comes on the speakers. At the same time, that record is perfect to put on when you go to bed. Combining those things isn't easy."
The Ladies and Gentlemen's thoughtful, dreamy intimacy isn't what you'd expect from the brain behind the Carnations' turbo-charged power pop.
At least, it's not what I expected. Full disclosure: D'Arcy's former band always left me cold, so I'm shocked to hear him say their rockier tunes started as stripped-down, electronic-laced demos closer to the stuff on Small Sins than to anything the Carnations actually put out.
D'Arcy claims it was the process of fixing what wasn't broken - knocking his vocals up an octave (to something he now calls his "Carnations voice"), cranking up the volume, adding bratty punk-pop guitars - that made him realize he had to say sayonara to his flower-power pals.
Leaving the Warehouse studio in Vancouver where the Carnations stopped off at the end of their final tour in the fall of 2003, D'Arcy paused to listen to a cover of Big Star's Big Black Car they'd recorded - with him singing in his proper range.
"I was so excited cuz I realized it was by far the best stuff we'd done. I told the guys, 'If we could make music like this we could become a completely different band!'"
"That's when I realized I needed to move on."
He took a hiatus from rock, turned into a hermit and began the gruelling process of breaking down and putting everything back together. After spending almost a decade in a group, D'Arcy liked the idea of flying totally solo, even when he decided to turn his demos into a real record - partly because he was daunted by the thought of showing such super-personal songs to other people, but mainly, he admits, because he's got a bit of OCD.
Even the silliest, fluffiest bits on Small Sins, like the whirring keyboard solo on Easy, which sounds a bit like a Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band or an exploding Atari ghost, are the result of hours of obsessing.
"My rehearsal space is right next door to this really loud metal band's," D'Arcy begins. "The whole time, I was imagining this metal dude in the next room, with his long hair and his clouds of weed smoke, listening to me play this Moog solo over and over for four hours straight as I tried to get the stupidest thing you've ever heard stupid in just the right way.
"If there'd been anyone actually working with me, they would've gotten really angry and threatened to quit after about 10 minutes."
While D'Arcy managed to finish up a killer album (and, apparently, two more records' worth of material) all by himself, with help from sound guy slash engineer Simon Head, the live version of Ladies and Gentlemen gets a major kick from his friends, including a few former Carnations bandmates.
All of them, of course, in matching suits.
"I could say something pretentious about purity or whatever," laughs D'Arcy when I ask about the snazzy white outfits. "But really we just thought it looked hot. A female friend of mine was wearing all white at a club one night, and I thought she looked hot. That was the original reason, but it actually did turn into the bullshit answer.
"It made sense in the context of the music. It was about being pure and simple. There's no hiding; every part is there for a reason. So the white suits actually fit in with that. Then factor in the idea that the lyrics are dealing with guilt, and it's almost" - he says sheepishly - "about being born again.
"But that all happened by accident."