Recently, Montreal power folk trio Plants and Animals released Parc Avenue to rapturous reviews. Success has been a long time coming for the group, who have been playing locally since 2000, four years before the international music press anointed Montreal “it”. But, as noted in the Pitchfork review of Parc Avenue, Montreal “is like a clown car...just when you think it couldn't possibly contain any more talent, some more emerge.” The city's flourishing indie-rock credentials this decade is a surprise to many who pegged Montreal as another flash-in-the-pan scene.
Here’s how “it” works. Every three or four years, the music press comes to a consensus on a city. Magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin assemble a few bands from that city and classify them to a rigid “sound,” no matter how accurate that designation is. The press, in conjunction with the labels, market them ad nauseum until there is an inevitable backlash, at which point they report on the backlash. They then move on to a new city. Rinse, repeat. (For a great example of how this process works, watch the Doug Pray documentary Hype!)
Seattle is the textbook example. The near-simultaneous release of Pearl Jam's debut Ten and Nirvana's sophomore effort Nevermind—two albums that each found a large audience in short time—gave the media an easy starting point Though they were different musically, both bands shared a low-end, distorted guitar sound and an affinity for flannel shirts. Grunge was born. Bands from Seattle who were already established and had major label deals (like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains) were shoehorned into this “sound” as well. When the smoke cleared, the only bands that established any foothold were the four aforementioned groups, with records by The Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and Tad collecting dust in the used CD bin.
A more recent example is Omaha, Nebraska. Based in the city, Saddle Creek Records released a string of artists that were the toast of indie-rock, including Cursive, The Faint, Rilo Kiley, and Bright Eyes. The “Omaha Sound,” as coined by the media, was one of country-tinged folk music with an emphasis on strings and lush production. And with the exception of the Faint (who are 80s synth-pop revivalists), the description rang true for most of the groups. But that too fell prey to the changing tastes of trendsetters who moved to another musical obsession
When Arcade Fire's debut Funeral exposed the percolating scene to outsiders, the music press established the Montreal “sound”. Pointing to post-rock icons and local legends Godspeed! You Black Emperor as a touchstone, the Montreal sound was described as “cinematic” and “orchestral.” When describing Arcade Fire or Stars (whose members make up part of the Toronto group Broken Social Scene), the word “collective” was used in reference to its large member count. Many articles were written about the “impassioned” lyrical content of singers Win Butler and Murray Lightburn and the effect the long, cold winters had on the music. The template was set and there wasn't much wiggle room.
But now it's four years later and the spotlight is still shining on the city. Montreal has moved beyond that first wave and has continued its quality output. One reason for this is that the artists responsible for the initial creative burst are releasing albums with their own bands and a multitude of side projects. This “six degrees of separation” has gone long way to extending the city's reputation as a beacon for indie music. Starting at one band, you can chart a member's collaboration to other albums and projects throughout the city and end up with a laundry list of excellent records.
Here is just one example: the Arcade Fire's breakout album Funeral (2004) featured Arlen Thompson drumming on several songs, notably “Wake Up.” Thompson would later go on to join Wolf Parade, who also features Hadji Bakara, Dan Boeckner, and Spencer Krug. Their debut record, Apologies To The Queen Mary (2005), was critically lauded and earned the band a Polaris Music Prize nomination. Along with Wolf Parade, Spencer Krug is the centerpiece of his own outfit, the Sunset Rubdown. Initially a solo effort whose debut was released the same year as Wolf Parade, Krug expanded Sunset's lineup for the follow-up Shut Up I Am Dreaming (2006) with Montreal music vets Michael Doerksen, Camilla Wyn Ingr (formerly of Montreal hot-property Pony Up!) and Jordan Robson-Cramer.
Robson-Cramer is a jack-of-all-trades. As well as his duties with Sunset Rubdown, he also has his own band, Magic Weapon (who has released two ep's in as many years) and plays drums for Miracle Fortress, whose debut record, the Pet Sounds-influenced Five Roses (2007) was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize. Miracle Fortress is the brainchild of Graham Van Pelt, founding member of party punkers Think About Life, whose self-titled debut in 2006 helped expand people's notions of the Montreal sound and whose sophomore effort, due later this year, is one of the most anticipated.
This type of musical rhizome is much more common with rap music, where rappers are introduced on other rapper's records before dropping an album of their own (N.W.A. begets Dr. Dre who begets Snoop Dog who begets Tha Dogg Pound, etc). Now of course, incestuous music scenes are hardly new but there is a unique difference in Montreal. Nearly all the bands referenced in the last two paragraphs have national and international distribution deals. Their albums sell in good numbers in North America and abroad and are being rewarded with accolades and high Pitchfork ratings.
The gradual, consistent successes of these bands have allowed the music press to expand their classifications and understandings of what Montreal is capable of producing, another reason why the spotlight has stayed on the city. The reverb-dripping, guitar layered group The Besnard Lakes is worlds apart from the synth-noise quartet AIDS Wolf and neither fall into the original media consensus of what is Montreal music. These bands would have been ignored had they released albums in '04, but as the assortment of off-shoots and side projects opened people's ears to other facets of the city's sound, the music media increased their fascination with the city.
Of course, the most obvious reason Montreal is still being highlighted in international music circles is that its bands continue to produce great music. Along with Plants and Animals, dance-punk outfit Creature released their new album, No Sleep At All, to fantastic reviews. Later this year we will see releases from homegrown, international known acts Wolf Parade and Islands. Perception of the city has moved from that of a single “sound” to one of a musically diverse center capable of producing numerous acts, much like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And the well is not dry. Below are just a few Montreal artists poised to make a mark.
Socalled: Born Josh Dolgin, Socalled blends a sample heavy pastiche of old school hip-hop, vintage soul loops, and traditional Jewish music. His rhyming channels another highly regarded Canadian MC, Buck 65. His debut, last year's Ghettoblaster, was one of the best party albums of the year. He has begun venturing outside of Canada as his record will be released stateside in the upcoming months.
Land of Talk: A sign you are unheralded in your own hometown; when the local culture press anoints you next big thing status AFTER the national media does. Such is the cross Land of Talk has to bear. Their well-received ep, Boo Hiss Cheer Applause, merges early Cat Power with Sonic Youth in a straightforward style. There was a recent lineup shift but that shouldn't halt plans for their full length due later this year.
Clues: The Unicorns have attained a mystique since their break-up in 2005. The frenetic, spazz-pop duo was part of the initial wave of Montreal bands that excited the media in the first place. One half, Nicolas Thorburn, became the Paul Simon of the group, launching the successful world-music/pop hybrid Islands. Their debut album Return To The Sea held a debt of gratitude to Simon's masterpiece Graceland. Alden Penner, the other half who coincidently bears a striking resemblance to Garfunkel, has kept a relatively low profile until now. Along with Bethany Or and Brendan Reed, Clues is a continuation of sorts of where The Unicorns were headed had they stayed together, venturing into bombastic corners of pop music. They have been playing small, secret shows around the city to set up for the release of their anticipated debut sometime in the late summer/early fall.