The Killers / The Psychedelic Furs / James / William Prince @ Ottawa Bluesfest

Arts Coverage, Bluesfest 2019

Las Vegas indie rockers The Killers headlined Bluesfest Sunday night, delivering a flashy spectacle worthy of their hometown.

With charismatic frontman Brandon Flowers at centre stage, the group opened with two tracks off their 2004 debut Hot Fuss: “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and hard-edged new wave hit “Somebody Told Me.” Killers songs straddle genres while maintaining their standard slick sound, fusing the sometimes contradictory pleasures of power pop and arena rock with a splash of Broadway theatricality.

The visual accompaniment was delightfully devoid of subtlety. Giddy 2008 single “Spaceman,” for instance, employed trippy imagery that wouldn’t have been out of place at a prog show. With mismatched flashing lights and skyward-pointing laser beams (not to mention confetti and fireworks), the show felt like being inside of a casino.

They slowed things down a bit with 2012 power ballad “The Way It Was” and “Shot at the Night,” an anthem that could have been ripped right out of the eighties.

K3

Flowers ironically donned a cowboy hat for braggadocios disco track “The Man,” which saw neon reliefs of cowboys and cowgirls flashing on the screens. 

The band shifted gears again with “Run for Cover,” a propulsive track that was one of the more straight rock songs of the night. Next up was “Smile Like You Mean It” and anguished synth-pop banger “For Reasons Unknown,” one of the highlights of the set.

The Killers

Americana story-song “Dustbowl Fairytale” was followed by an abridged acoustic cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (originated by Ottawa’s own Bruce Cockburn), before arena rock love song “Runaways.”

The next song, “Read My Mind,” almost felt like a showstopper; however, the lingering silhouette of Flowers against the spotlights dispelled any doubts that there would be an encore. They returned in fine form for crowd favourites “All These Things That I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young.”

Lebreton Flats felt like a karaoke bar as thousands of people sang along to the bare-bones sung/spoken intro of “Mr. Brightside;” the field felt like it was about to explode when the song finally kicked into gear.

It was, pardon the pun, a killer show.


PF

Earlier in the evening, the City Stage showcased two other influential alternative acts.

Manchester indie rock band James showed off their diverse catalog, which ranged from raunchy breakout hit “Laid” (prominently featured in the American Pie movies, and buried in the middle of their Sunday setlist) to intense protest songs like “Heads.” Lead vocalist Tim Booth paused to condemn “fascists and racists” after the latter track, before switching gears for “non-political”  (but still apocalyptic) love song “Leviathan.”

Next on the main stage were eighties new wave icons The Psychedelic Furs. The group displayed a quintessential British post-punk sound, with punky vocals and artsy arrangements in the service of effervescent pop-adjacent songs like “Pretty in Pink” and “Heartbreak Beat.”

Lead singer Richard Butler’s compelling and at times confrontational stage presence added some welcome bite, particularly on political songs like the scathing “President Gas.”


William Prince

Acclaimed folk singer William Prince started the evening at the Bluesville Stage.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and his deep baritone voice, Prince played a mix of unreleased songs (he’s in the process of creating his second album) and tracks from his debut record Earthly Days. 

The JUNO winner endeared himself to the crowd with his tender, earnest songs, as well as his humble stage presence and self-deprecating sense of humour. He occasionally poked fun at his propensity for slow, sad songs; towards the end of the show, he joked that “Eddy Boy” (a touching portrait of his late father, gospel singer Ed Prince) could be his “Free Bird.”

Prince concluded the set with his breakout hit “Breathless,” a moving tribute to the classic songs he grew up listening to his parents perform. “Never heard a song sound quite like Elvis,” he sang wistfully, capturing the magic of those long-ago moments.

After a brief absence (during which the house music came back on), he returned to the stage for an apparently unplanned encore. After reminiscing about his father on “Eddy Boy,” he closed with the cautiously optimistic “All I Know,” leading the crowd on a subdued sing-along after a melancholy chorus of “All I know, is all of this will all pay off…We pay the dues while they watch the clock.”


Line-up: William Prince (Bluesville Stage) / James / The Psychedelic Furs / The Killers (City Stage)

Venue: RBC Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats, Ottawa

Date: Sunday, July 7/2019

 

 

 

MIDSOMMAR is a folk horror fever dream [review]

Commentary, Film and Television

Ari Aster’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to Hereditary is a hallucinatory fever dream that fuses coming-of-age drama with vintage occult horror.

Aster’s terrifying 2018 debut, which starred Toni Collette as a bereaved mother tormented by evil spirits, took familiar horror tropes and made them feel fresh. Culminating in a disturbing occult ritual orchestrated by a coven of witches, Hereditary had touches of folk horror; Midsommar cranks that influence up to eleven, following a group of students who accompany a friend to his isolated commune in the mountains of Sweden.

The students are Christian, Mark, and Josh; a late addition to the trip is Christian’s girlfriend Dani, still reeling from the murder-suicide deaths of her parents and sister. Their arrival coincides with the commune’s once-per-century festival, which seems to include several days of maypole dances, awkward meals, something involving a caged bear, and some light human sacrifice. (An early revelation is that community elders are honoured in an elaborate ceremony that ends with them throwing themselves from the cliffs). The commune members are oddly open about their activities, providing the outsiders with intimate access; it’s almost as if they know the students won’t be leaving.

Despite their radically different settings, Midsommar isn’t actually a huge departure from Hereditary. The films share a propensity for pagan rituals, disorienting camera angles, oddly proportioned architecture, and – perhaps most importantly – a female character dealing with unimaginable tragedy that seems to have struck independent of supernatural involvement. In a way, Dani is the polar opposite of Collette’s character in Hereditary; where Annie let her grief consume her entire family, Dani is so reluctant to burden anyone else that she represses her grief to a dangerous extent.

Early in the film, she brushes off her sister’s cry for help because Christian (out partying with his buddies) convinces her it’s an attention ploy (spoiler alert: it’s not). Deep in mourning, she drags herself to parties (and subsequently Sweden) for his sake. Once they pull into the commune, she reluctantly takes hallucinogens (pretty much guaranteed to give her a bad trip) because she doesn’t want to spoil his fun. And when another guest goes missing, Dani doesn’t press the issue; after all, Christian’s having important academic discussions and doesn’t need to be bothered.

Portrayed by British actress Florence Pugh, Dani is more of a fleshed-out character than a lot of cinematic scream queens (or female characters, period). Aster’s script imbues Dani with nervous tics, self-esteem issues, and a desperate desire to please that seems to be a direct result of her traumatic past. In an early scene, she timidly confronts her boyfriend about his thoughtlessness, barely letting him get a word in as she talks herself into forgiving him; by the end of the argument, she’s almost congratulating him for abandoning her in her time of need.

She deserves much better than Christian, an insensitive underachiever who treats her legitimate traumas as a drag on his carefree life. He invites her on his guys’s trip solely out of obligation, never expecting her to accept, and proceeds to forget her birthday and pursue an ill-fated coupling with a fertile pagan girl.

His friends are no better. Will Poulter’s Mark is almost cartoonish in his assholery, dismissing Dani’s needs as “abuse” and unrepentantly urinating on a sacred tree. William Jackson Harper’s Josh is a tunnel-vision academic who knows more than he lets on, but not enough to be as afraid as he should be. And their guide Pelle (played by Vilhelm Blomgren) is a sensitive artist who may have knowingly led his American friends to their gruesome deaths. (In comparison to the others, he’s downright likeable). Aster spends a lot of screen-time probing the interpersonal dynamics of these characters, who are believable and often infuriating.

Midsommar is far less commercial than Hereditary (which is saying something, since that film was an gruelling endurance exercise that mixed hardcore horror with devastating family drama). The film moves with an almost Kubrickian slowness, lingering lovingly over serene but sinister Swedish valleys and the ancient rites of the Hårga.

Aster’s cinematography is stunning as ever; not since The Shining has a vast open space looked so claustrophobic. The landscape’s few human touches are subtly unsettling: cabins that look like they were built to collapse on themselves; elaborate tapestries depicting obscene love spells; a bright yellow, perfectly triangular temple situated just off-centre on the screen.

Aster’s lavish attention to the Hårga rites is occasionally tedious, mimicking the feeling of observing a long-winded cultural ceremony as an outsider. (Fittingly, the solemnity of the proceedings is often interrupted by bozo outbursts from the students). Truth be told, the movie could have used an edit: Aster’s rituals (especially towards the end) are fascinating and have a frightening manic quality, but his most pivotal sequences are somewhat dimmed by the inclusion of too many similar scenes.

Revolving around a group of largely passive observers, Midsommar lacks the forward momentum of Hereditary (or even its obvious influence The Wicker Man, which had a mystery to push its protagonist deeper into his island cult), not to mention the element of surprise. If you’re familiar with folk horror, nothing in Midsommar will really shock you. Chalk that up to the limitations of the genre: there’s no hiding the fact that the apparently-idyllic commune is actually sinister, and that one at least of our “heroes” will end up an unwilling sacrifice; the question is just who and how.

The who in this film is deeply satisfying; the how is beautifully brutal, granting us the kind of mutilation-as-art imagery we haven’t seen since Hannibal got cancelled.

Visually, Midsommar borrows quite a bit from Hannibal, with splashes of Annihilation and gore worthy of a Rob Zombie movie. It’s also obviously part of a long tradition of “folk horror” movies like The Wicker Man, The Ritual, and The VVitch.

The film’s obvious fidelity to its genre pleases me immensely. Hereditary, when it came out, was among the crop of recent movies lauded as “art-house” or “elevated” horror, with critics speculating that its spooky trappings were a bait-and-switch to “trick” unsophisticated audiences into watching a serious family drama.

While Midsommar is also largely concerned with relationship dynamics (podcaster Elric Kane called it “one of the most accurate depictions of a slow break up I’ve ever seen”), it’s equally concerned with hallucinations and human sacrifice; it’s “art-house” for sure, but it goes a long way in dispelling the notion that Aster has no real commitment to the horror genre.

Beautifully shot, slow-burning, and profoundly weird, Midsommar won’t be for everyone, but it establishes Aster as a visionary director of horror. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.


Title: Midsommar

Director: Ari Aster

Screenwriter: Ari Aster

Year: 2019

Blog #6: Canada Day, poems, and more

Blog

Greetings all, and happy birthday Canada!

Read on for a wicked CanCon playlist, a snapshot of how Ottawa residents are celebrating Canada Day, and a brand-new (and very Canadian) poem:


Canada Day Playlist 2019

If you’re looking for some new CanCon to blast today, I have the playlist for you: fifteen (give or take) of my favourite Canadian tracks from 2019, ranging from rap to rock to folk and everything in between.

You can read my comments here – or, if you would rather dispense with my commentary, you can just listen to the songs below:

 

 

 


Canada Day in Ottawa

Canada Day festivities were already in full force in Canada’s capital yesterday.

Just down the street from Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park featured a number of family-friendly activities and performances, including a set by synth-pop trio CHANCES:

The group took the stage at Ottawa’s Major’s Hill Park at around 2 pm. Accompanied by drummer Vincent Carré, singers Chloé Lacasse and Geneviève Toupin showed off strong vocal harmonies on darkly-gleaming songs that were alternately lively and ecstatic.

-CHANCES ft. Iskwe @ Major’s Hill Park; July 1/2019

The grounds were decked out with a ton of neat displays, including large yellow signs with excerpts from works by Canadian poets:

Poetry


Speaking of poems…

I celebrated by sharing my poem “Ghosts of Parliament,” perhaps the most Canadian thing I’ve ever written, to Twitter and Instagram in the form of a ten-part photo series.

 

 

With photos taken in and around Parliament Hill’s Centre Block before it closed for renovations, the poem takes the form of a conversation between the various gargoyles, statues and carvings that lurk on the premises.

 


Happy Canada Day, everyone! Get out there and watch some fireworks (or stay in and watch a David Cronenberg movie; I don’t judge).

-Madison

 

2019 Canada Day Playlist

Commentary, Music

Looking for some new tunes to blast on Canada Day?

Below are 15 (give or take) of my favourite Canadian tracks from 2019. This list runs the gamut from rap to rock to folk and everything in between, with selections from across our diverse country: you’ll find Avril Lavigne and Carly Rae Jepsen alongside Calgary hardcore punk, BC hip hop, Montreal art rock, northern electronica, East Coast anthems, West coast rock, and much more.

Kenny and Spenny @ Yuk Yuk’s

Arts Coverage

Comedians Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice don’t so much “do stand-up,” as re-hash decades of grievances in front of a bloodthirsty audience.

The two cult comics, who grew up together in the suburbs of Toronto and had their lifelong friendship tested (if not destroyed) in their depraved reality competition show Kenny vs. Spenny, played a packed house at Yuk Yuk’s Ottawa Wednesday night.