Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Head-Banging and Slow-Dancing: The Damn Truth and Young Rival at Divan Orange

The Damn Truth + Young Rival at Divan Orange

Head-Banging and Slow-Dancing | Antoine Leclerc

When the members of The Damn Truth talk about their first LP Dear in the Headlights, they speak of a labour of love. The love is indeed very hard to miss when listening to that sometimes heavy, sometimes peaceful album, on which the four-piece’s bluesy rock and roll is showcased in all its coarse beauty. Mean grooves and badass riffs abound in the rockier pieces, while nice acoustic guitar lines and spacey electric guitar melodies accompany Lee-La’s magnificently soulful vocals on the quieter songs. It’s a truly great record, one that may cause the listeners to nod heavily for a minute, and then incite them to gently sway from left to right during the next. “We just came out and we did what we do,” says drummer Dave Traina. “It wasn’t too forced, it was a natural process. It was as natural as breathing, in a way.”

I quickly came to understand that The Damn Truth’s perspective on making music is largely based on doing what comes to them naturally, without complicating things. Indeed, the unit whose bandcamp bio simply reads “We’re The Damn Truth from Montreal and we play rock and roll music” talks about its material with a calm and poised tone. For instance, when lead singer Lee-La talks about the band’s 60s-70s blues-rock aesthetic, she declares that it’s just “the music that we love, that’s what we like to do, we don’t follow the fads too much”. Similarly, lead guitarist Tom Shemer speaks of composition by saying, “it’s less of a thinking process, and more of a feeling process.” Hell, they even view their own songs as ever-evolving pieces, as Shemer testifies when he says things like: “To be honest, a song is never really finished. Even after you record it, when you play it live, there’re always variations,” or “The best part about music is the experimentation.”

Of course, this kind of attitude towards creation permeates in Dear in the Headlights, which was independently produced at Traina’s The Freq Shop studio. However, even if the band members mostly took care of things on their own, they insist on mentioning audio engineer and producer Jean Massicotte’s name and on throwing a generous amount of praise at him, claiming that “Jean took the songs and brought them to a whole other level.” Furthermore, anyone who listens to the album closely will be able to tell that there is a noticeable cohesion, a remarkably symbiotic relationship between the different instruments. While recognizing that it can partially be explained by how long the band members have known each other and how much time they spend together, Traina underlines that the way they do things in the studio is also a factor: “We play, everyone is set up, we’re tracking everyone at the same time in the room, we got the drums, the bass, the guitars, the vocals, they’re all going down at the same time. We always play together. A lot of bands don’t really do that as much. […] We feel we’ve achieved something with the recording of [the album] because it was performed in that way. Not necessarily edited to death, or whatever comes with modern recording techniques.” 

As well as displaying the band’s abilities as a unit, Dear in the Headlights constitutes a very eloquent demonstration of just how skilled every individual musician in the band is. And boy, are they ever skilled. When Traina talked about Shemer’s expertise by saying, “Tom’s got a very, very, very definitive guitar tone, he brings that to the table, I don’t think that there’s anyone really who sounds like this guy sounds as a guitar player”, and about Lee-La’s vocal talents by stating that she “has a very unique voice”, I guess I did not grasp the extent to which he meant business. It was not long before reality kicked me in the face, hard and mean.

Let us get real for a minute: The Damn Truth’s performance at Divan Orange on February 14th was absolutely mind-blowing. It was loud, it was soulful, it was mean, intense, beautiful, extraordinarily executed and prodigiously fun. A drape of deliciously crunchy distortion had been laid on Derek Orsi’s (King Tut’s and By The Fiend’s bassist, replacing David Masse, who broke his hand days prior to the tour) bass lines, which stuck to Traina’s bulky drum patterns like a magnet covered in glue. Predictably, this gave birth to the most dangerous of grooves, which did not fail to cause severe head-banging and outrageous dancing everywhere in the bar. 

Meanwhile, Shemer’s elaborate, incredibly soulful and stirring riffs would either follow the grooves elegantly, or else break away from them to dive into bewildering fuzzy-sounding solos. Behind the curtain of long black hair covering his face, this man truly made his guitar come to life, he made it sing ardent and dream-inducing hymns, his fingers seeming to waltz effortlessly over the glimmering strings. At one point, he bent over a pedal full of knobs, and started turning them to bend the sound of his guitar, thus throwing a bunch of well-calculated glitches in the soundscape. It had been a long time since I had seen such a skilful guitarist. 

Similar things can be said about lead singer and guitarist Lee-La’s abilities. Allow me to make myself clear: that woman is in Janis Joplin’s league, period. Her voice is nothing but soul and intensity, nothing but warm, smoky and powerful melodies. She’s capable of taking hold of the ambiance in breathtaking fashion, thanks to her explosive delivery and entrancing tone of voice. It is safe to claim that everyone’s jaw dropped low enough to touch the floor of Divan Orange on that faithful night. You know, some singers are very talented, and most people agree that they’re good, while some others straight up shine and their greatness is an undeniable fact. Lee-La’s is clearly, utterly part of the latter category. She displayed it in the most poetic of ways when she sang Just a Reflection, the only acoustic piece of the set and the only song from the self-titled EP that was re-done on Dear in the Headlights. It served as a very good demonstration of the band’s versatility when it comes to musical moods. If you live in Montreal and you claim to be a rock and roll fan, you simply cannot fail to attend one of The Damn Truth’s live performances.

If such is your claim, nor should you ignore Young Rival, for that matter. The Hamilton-based trio’s approach to music is way too fun to be unnoticed. Its members are avowed mélomanes who get a kick out of drawing inspiration from pretty much every type of music that was labeled as “rock” in the last seven decades or so. The result is a wonderful, sunshine-filled blend of rockabilly, surf, punk and heavy rock. It’s irresistible. According to guitarist and lead singer Aron D’Alesio, making contemporary music is often about honouring the oeuvre of bands from the past: “There is no, like, ‘sound of now’, kind of thing. I mean, there’s the dream pop thing, and there’re these movements and things, but they’re all kind of taking… and that’s the way music has always gone, you always kind of dig back and pull out influences. I feel like now more than ever, so much ground has been covered in music that it’s just kind of like, ‘I like this, I like this, I like this,’ and you just kind of come up with your own thing. Because there’s so much out there to pull from, you can either decide to be something very specific or you can keep your aperture open and try all kinds of different things musically as well.”

Needless to say, Young Rival’s aperture is wide open. When asked to cite some of their influences, drummer Noah Fralick and bassist John Smith speak of The Kinks, The Walkmen, Beach House, Queens of the Stone Age, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Atkins, The Ramones… For anyone who digs music, going through the band’s repertoire (an EP and two LPs) constitutes an exceptionally fun experience.

That being said, it’s even more fun to see them in action. When they stepped on stage after The Damn Truth’s set, with wide grins and high energy, it did not take long for the crowd to absorb the good vibes. What ensued is a cheerful moment of dirty popish guitar-playing punctuated with tight little solos, frenetic drumming with a touch of joyfully unorthodox rolls here and there, coated in a layer of warm, sharp bass lines that would sometimes flirt with the limit between ‘groovy’ and ‘heavy’. Fun fact: D’Alesio’s microphone was wrapped in a rag in order to give his boyish voice that somewhat muffled, 1960s-radio tone. It worked wonderfully. This attention to detail is actually very typical of Young Rival’s general approach. It seems every aspect of their music is thoroughly calculated, from song structure to lyrics, without forgetting the overall vibe of their pieces. These are talented rock and rollers, who have a very clear idea of what they’re doing, and who do it well.

“If there is a moment of the night when you wanted to slow-dance, now would be the time!” D’Alesio said just prior to drop the first notes of a sweet, dreamy song that would have pleased the most old-school of ballroom dwellers. Lighters were swaying as pairs were formed, and the romance began. However, it did not take long for the band to dive back into their sunny and noisy habits, and so the dancing got a bit rowdier. When they got off stage after the encore, I realized that in the same night, I had witnessed (and participated) in a session of head-banging and a session of slow-dancing.

Fun times.
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