Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Lemming Ways at Divan Orange

The Lemming Ways at Divan Orange 

Ethereal Ambiance and Efficient Grooves | Antoine Leclerc

I was initially a little disappointed when I found out that the lead singer of the very eloquent-sounding indie-rock band The Sound of Sea Animals called in sick, and that someone else was to open for local folky rock act The Lemming Ways for their show at Divan Orange on February 2nd. It looked like my curiosity had to remain unquenched for now, but to quote a young Johnny Cash: sometimes, “I guess things happen that way”.

However, I soon found out I had no reason to be bummed out. Charles-Antoine Gosselin, singer of Montreal-based mellow folk-rock act Harvest Breed, alone with his acoustic guitar and his smooth vocal chords, was more than ready to fill in for the absentees. “I’ll do something I don’t usually do: covers” he announced as he climbed on stage. And then the dream began.

You know you’re dealing with a talented, thorough musician when you realize that his selection of favourites include songs from such varied artists as Kenny Rogers, Ryan Adams, the Bee Gees and Sinead O’Connor. His interpretation of the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody, for which he sang alongside two friends who joined him on stage, truly constituted a stunning vocal performance, one that makes the hair stand on your forearms. The trio’s mind-blowing harmonies and soulful, poignant delivery left the audience entranced and enchanted. In total, Gosselin only performed a handful of covers, but every single one of them involved its share of guts, passion and sheer melodic magnificence. What a way to start the night, and what a performance for someone who did not even know he was going to play before that very morning.

And what started well kept going in the same fashion. The Lemming Ways, a trio whose melodic, jammy rock draws influence from an array of places, would make sure of that. Their poetic, witty songs are built around very efficient grooves and catchy drum patterns, and are characterized by an intelligent, well-calculated progressive edge. The guitar, bass and drums are (sometimes) complemented by just the right amount of synths, which were triggered by the drummer on a digital interface during the show. In four years of existence, Marc-Étienne Mongrain (guitar, vocals), Gabriel Lemieux-Maillé (drums) and Marc-André Gosselin (bass, vocals) managed to forge a sound that is uniquely theirs, and looked quite happy to share it with the public that night.

Listening to their two EPs (both of which are offered for free on the band’s Bandcamp page), one easily notices that the band has a sense of purpose when it comes to the general atmosphere of their songs. Indeed, beyond melody and rhythm, they manage to give their sound a very soulful, very ethereal quality, thanks to fuzzy guitars and generally soft vocals infused with a touch of reverb. If that focus on overall ambiance already stands out on their recorded material, it could not have been more obvious during the show. Many times, the public found itself closed-eyed and swaying, visibly transported by the band’s ability to create a somewhat angelic soundscape around their songs. It’s especially true for one piece, during which one line (“It wasn’t born out of love”) is repeated over and over again as momentum-gathering moments unfold, before they explode in astonishingly executed electric guitar solos. Mongrain explains why the band focuses on atmosphere so much: “It comes from the fact that, during the year, prior to recording this EP, I kind of stopped listening to songs. I started listening to krautrock, to [German krautrock icon project] Neu!, to 20-minute long experimental stuff in which not much happens (laughs)”.

At a time when Montreal is well known for its folk and indie-rock scenes, the Lemming Ways stand out a little. In fact, the band deliberately attempts to create something that will not be labeled as “from Montreal”. Mongrain declares: “I have nothing against it [being tagged as a Montreal project]. I play in Fire/Works, and you can’t get more ‘Montreal’ than that: psychedelic rock, with an organ. But yeah, there was a desire that, when listening to this band, one could think it comes from anywhere. […] [The music] I love deeply, and that marked me in my life doesn’t come from here. It’s not people here’s fault, and it’s not my own fault, it’s just the way it happened. So I’m more tempted to go towards that than a very organic-sounding project. I find that bands here are very organic – take Plants & Animals, for instance – but there is a much ‘colder’ side to music that I wanted to develop, and it seems it’s not really being done here, I don’t know why. I wanted to push the new order, new age, krautrock side of things”.

And they do push it, as demonstrated by the shift between their two EPs. If, on The Beautiful Design (their 2010 EP), their sound has a 70s rock, Grateful Dead kind of vibe, they seem to shift a decade in Two / Poles, their most recent effort. Indeed, the arrival of producer Étienne Dupuis-Cloutier pushed the band to adopt a largely synth-based approach, which, even with the band using models of synths from the 70s, gives the sound a bit of an 80s post-punk aesthetic: “We wanted a lot of Moog [the synth named after its inventor, not the store], explains Marc-André Gosselin, because we’re big fans of Moog synths from the 70s. The guys from the Moog store lent us two synths, and Marc-Étienne and Étienne had fun for two or three days adding some Moog to every single one of ours songs. It was needed, it was what we wanted, it was the texture of sound we wanted.”

Predictably, it turned out wonderful. Indeed, that texture suits them incredibly well, as they truly use it well. Saturday’s show was thus a great display of the band’s ever-evolving approach to their art. In all honesty, I expected the show to be good, but could not have imagined I was going to be in for such a treat. It really was a blissful moment, from beginning to end.

Below, a video of The Lemming Ways’ live performance of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Heaven Can Wait, alongside Alice & the Intellects, at the Quai des Brumes last year.

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